MY MOTHER WAS obsessed with all things French, the art and language in particular. I wouldn’t call her a Francophile, necessarily, but the word probably isn’t too far off.
When I was in middle school — rather late in the game to be introduced to a foreign language, in my opinion — and it came time for me to pick a second tongue, one that I’d study through college, I wanted to take Spanish. It seemed the most practical, given that I was growing up in Los Angeles and was spoken all around me.
Preteen boys aren’t typically known for their pragmatism, so I was proud of my choice. But my mother vetoed it and insisted I take French, which my sister, Shana, would also learn (and excel at beyond me).
French is, of course, a lovely language, one I enjoy butchering now and then. My accent isn’t particularly great, but it isn’t dreadful either. Overall, I’d give my command of French a solid comme ci, comme ça. This is more the case outside Paris, where I feel more at ease flexing my linguistic muscles. (People in the south, even as far as Geneva, seem far more forgiving, or less judgmental, if I Franco faultier.
In Paris though, a city I love dearly, it’s always the same: I start in French, and a Parisian either replies in English or looks at me as though I’m speaking utter gibberish. When I was there a few weeks ago, I wanted to order dessert for my daughter and me in Maison Pradier. So to the young woman behind the counter, I said, « Excusez-moi, mademoiselle, je voudrais une tarte au chocolat, s’il vous plaît. » (“Excuse me, miss, I would like a chocolate tart, please.”)
« Tart ? » she replied. « Tarte, » I said again. She repeated herself : « Tart ? » I grew frustrated : « Un petit gâteau au chocolat ! » She pulled out a chocolate-chip cookie, which was nowhere near the small chocolate cake I just requested. I pointed repeatedly to the case opposite her. Upon coming to the desired sweet, she said, « Ah, une tarte. » By this point I wasn’t especially pleased.
These sorts of exchanges can get exhausting over the course of a week, but I remain undeterred. Wherever I am (even in Paris!), I’m always careful to learn the words for — and then use — hello, goodbye, thank you and you’re welcome. Just like Zach and Zoey. I always try to dig a little deeper linguistically and remind myself that maybe the people I’m speaking to just want to practice their English as much as I wish to practice my French. Then again, I might just be horrifying them with my efforts. C’est la vie.