An American in Paris: You’re Welcome?

December 5, 2011


Unrelated: one of the most distressing things to me about France is how many statues do not have heads. | Photo by Annie White.

Over the past several weeks, I have slowly become aware of the fact that I am not awful at French anymore.  This is not to say, of course, that I speak perfect or even near-perfect French, but Francophones are now able to accept the noises that come out of my mouth as a recognizable language. It has been a while since someone started talking to me in French, decided listening to my accent wasn’t worth it, and then switched to English, and it has been a (shorter) while since I started speaking French, realized I had no idea what I was trying to say, and was forced to stare dumbly at whoever I was talking to, hoping they would throw me a rope.

However – there’s always a however – there are still a few things I have no idea how to say in French and will probably never learn. These gaps are probably a result of my extremely relaxed attitude towards language acquisition – I don’t own a French dictionary and enjoy making up my own meanings for words I don’t know, with little regard for accuracy.

Most of the reason I have eschewed dictionaries (with the important exception of when I am writing papers) is that I think it is really fun to hear a word fifteen times and not understand it… and then suddenly realize exactly what it means. Unfortunately, the reward compared to the amount of time I spend utterly confused is not very satisfying.

My first lexical gap is that I do not know how to say “you’re welcome.”  Or, rather, I do know how to say it (de rien) but I never do. For some reason, I have not been able to integrate this phrase into my French vocabulary, despite having integrated other, less polite vocabulary with much less trouble. For some reason, saying de rien never seems right to me, so whenever someone says “thank you,” I do one of two things: I either say a very enthusiastic “thank you” back (which is fine at the store, but is a little strange if someone just asked me for directions), or mumble awkwardly and run away.  Early in my stay in Paris, I was constantly trying to force myself to use de rien in daily conversation, but I have finally accepted my fate as a person unable to gracefully acknowledge thanks. Parisians, to their credit, seem to take this in stride.

My second, and probably more problematic, gap relates to food. Before coming to Paris, when I was anticipating the struggles I would face, I always counted ordering food as one of the things I would be good at, since it is one of the few things they actually teach Americans in French class. Unfortunately, what they teach is how to order an omelet. Or a cheese omelet. Or a grilled cheese sandwich. Or a grilled cheese sandwich with an egg on top. This is all very well and good, but while I have never had occasion to order an omelet in Paris, I have found myself sitting in a restaurant staring at a menu and realizing that my dinner was going to be a surprise.

Of course, I could just ask for help, but with my pride already bruised from three months in a country where I communicate at the level of a toddler of less than average intelligence, asking for help reading a menu seems like one step too far.