Friday, September 10, 2010

Overheard in Montreal

One time, back in 2001 or 2 or something like that, I went to Montreal for Spring Break with some friends from college, and we met up with some other college students in Montreal, and did stuff, but on this particular night we were going out to dinner.  There were native Québécois and a lady from Paris, and a woman who spoke some version of creole, and some pseudo-Spanish speaking Americans, and me... who took 4 years of high school french.

So there we are, at this restaurant, with at least 3 different versions of French being spoken at the table, and us wide-eyed Americans trying really hard not to be obnoxious.  And that's really hard for me, because obnoxious is one of the things I do best.  I practiced saying it too. Bonjour! Je suis un odieux Américaine. Pardonez-moi s'il vous plaît. .  Hello! I am an obnoxious American.  Please forgive me.

On this night at dinner, I tried to order my meal in French. One of the few things that stuck with me from my French classes were the two most important phrases in any foreign language:

1) Where is the... (Où est la ...)


2) I would like that thing. (Je voudrais cette chose.)

Pointing makes translation unnecessary. Never under-estimate my ability to make a mess of simple things.  The actual ordering went pretty well, so I was feeling like the queen of the universe and decided to push my luck.  Oh, silly me. I attempted to call our waitress over to ask for more water.

"Serviette!" I said as she wandered by.  She nodded, rolled her eyes and kept walking.  I was very confused (which is a pretty normal state of being for me).  She came back by a few minutes later and handed me a napkin while walking to another table.  Napkin?  I wanted water.  L'eau.  I knew the word and everything.  Why was she bringing me a napkin when I didn't even have a chance to do anything other than try to get her attention...

Oh!  Serviette is napkin.  Serveuse is waitress.  Silly me.  So I refrained from asking for water, even though I felt pretty sure I'd do ok.  Then somewhere along the way as the Parisienne is talking to the Québécois, I hear those infamous words:  

J'ai oubliez mon gateau du fromage sur la piano.

I shook my head, cocked it to one side like an inquisitive spaniel and said to the nearest francophone, "I left my cheesecake on the piano?"  (His name was Eric, he was adorable and spoke about as much English as I did French, and other than how cute he looked in his glasses and turtleneck sweater, the only thing I remember is that he was studying geology & earthquakes... we had nothing to talk about, language barriers notwithstanding.)  He nodded enthusiastically and said with an accent that I cannot replicate--nor will I attempt to in type--"Oui! Bien Sur! You understand very well!"  I was flabbergasted.  I didn't think I'd understood correctly.  I thought I'd misheard something, or it was some strange colloquialism that they'd explain to me, like the one that is something about dancing, I think, but translates roughly to "swing your woman around the wooden box" or something and I can't remember the French for it, but it was a very regional...Quebec-y type thing that had this particular rhythm to started with "swing" and ended with "dans le font d'la boite en bois" I think and in between there was something that sounded like ba-kize... and the internet, in all it's glory tells me that the phrase is "swing la bacaisse dans l’fond d’la boite à bois" and la bacaisse is a fat lady.   Hooray internet*.

Anyway, as it turns out this wasn't a colloquialism.  Veronica had been eating cheesecake to celebrate a friend's birthday, then got a phone call, so set her plate of half-eaten cheesecake down on the piano.  After her call, she realized it was time to leave, so everyone walked out the door, which happened to be right by the phone, and it wasn't until half-way though dinner that she realized that she had in fact left her cheesecake on the piano.

After this stunning feat of interpreting on my part, I decided to again try my mouth at French.  So, at the end of a wonderful meal, I leaned back from my chair, pat my not-insubstantial belly and proclaimed, "Je suis plein."  Literally: I am full.  No problem, right?

Wrong!  While the actual words say "I am full," the connotation is "I'm knocked up."  J'ai plein is what I meant to say: I have fullness, and I have since learned that a much safer thing to say is J'ai bien mangé.  I have eaten well.   So, after shocking the French speakers into silence, the English speakers looking completely confused as the bilinguals giggle uncontrollably...I blushed to the tips of my ears and vowed never to take myself seriously again while speaking a foreign language, and stick to the basics.

Je suis un odieux Américaine. Pardonez-moi s'il vous plaît.

*Really, one of the other joys of the internet, and blogs, and writing in general is the ability to edit--thus taking out the stumbling & fumbling of me trying to remember and instead just cutting to the chase of the silly phrase... but that's not as much fun and that's honestly how I went about it... remember what words I could and after trying Google Translate for "la bacaise" which isn't really a word as it turns out, Google the words I did know, and voilà!


Bill M said...

Ah, the unintentionally obnoxious American! Years ago in Vienna two of my travelling companions decided to go to a bar. Try to imagine if you will a bar in Vienna, one of the most cosmopolitan and sophisticated cities in the world. All right then, they entered the bar, which was completely packed. Being moderately advanced students of the German language, they asked "Wo konnen wir sitzen?" This literally translates as "Where can we sit?" EVERYONE in the bar stopped and stared at them, and they were so embarrassed they just left. Later we learned that they had in fact asked "Where can we squat?" The next week I asked a Vienna barber to please carve my hairs, but that's another story.

beylit said...

A girl in my French 4 class in high school was telling the class about her day, as we were often required to do. She was trying to express how at lunch she had chicken which was not good and had made her ill. She used the phrase "poulet méchants" which is bad chicken, just not bad as in 'poorly cooked and make you sick' but literally wicked chicken. My teacher asked her if the chicken had plotted world domination while stroking its chin in a menacing fashion.

Linnea said...

Beylit, "wicked chicken" sounds like a fabulous cajun dish that you should make me for dinner!

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