Excusez-moi, but my tongue seems to be tied.
This always seems to happen when I encounter a French person.
Fortunately, Antoine Gedroyc is trés patient. The head of the French Savannah Forum greeted me with a hearty
"Bonjour! Comment ça va?" at Foxy Loxy Café last Thursday evening and smiled encouragingly while I searched my addled brain for the formal translation of "I am fine, and how are you today?"
All I seemed to come up with was "La chat est blanc," the first sentence of my ninth grade French textbook. Helpful at a pet shop with a kindergartner, not so much in adult conversation.
So instead I just kept eating. I was with Gedroyc, his wife, Jennifer, and some forty others chilling at the Foxy for La Chandeleur, a French holiday celebrated by feasting on crÊpes. He explained (in English, bless his heart) that La Chandeleur originated as the French version of Candlemas by the church but is also inspired by pagan ritual - some say the flat shape of the crÊpe represents the sun, now making its return appearance in that part of the world this time of year. It also has a weather-predicting element, a little like our Groundhog Day without the cranky rodent.
As far as I'm concerned, La Chandeleur could be commemorating an alien visitation at the Eiffel Tower and I'd still show up, because any holiday devoted entirely to crÊpes is my kind of scene.
Bien sÛr, Savannah's own crÊpe mistress, Brittney Blackshear of CrÊpeÁDiem, was serving up delicate pancakes stuffed with sweet and savory delights right from the griddle. A line snaked around the courtyard as Forum members greeted each other with French kisses - that is, with bisous on both cheeks. (No tongue, s'il vous plaÎt.)
"The French are always looking for an excuse to eat, drink and party," Gedroyc confided, though ostensibly another reason for Forum gatherings is for French speakers and Francophiles to practice their language skills.
Unfortunately for him, instead of actually speaking French, all I could manage was to carry on my end of the conversation in English with a terrible Inspector Clouseau accent. Ahnd ‘ow long ‘ave you been in Zavannah?
It's really a shame - quel dommage: I studied the language for eight years and minored in it college, which may sound like a euphemism for drinking loads of red wine and eating cheese but did require a 10-page, grammatically-correct analysis of the collected works of Rimbaud en français.
Yet in spite of all that classwork (and oui, perhaps a few vats of cabernet and brie) and a lifelong case of Francophilia (ask my mother about the phase when I wore a gold beret everywhere, including Red Lobster), I just can't seem to conjugate freely.
Perhaps my shyness stems from the month I spent as a high school exchange student near Cannes and was confronted with a mysterious meal that appeared to be white gym socks floating in a bowl of dirty dishwater. Patting my stomach, I murmured "No merci, je suis pleine," to my host mother in the politest of tones.
Silverware clattered on plates and the table went quiet. I didn't understand what was so incredibly shocking about being full - until one of the family's young sons snickered to me in perfect English that I had just announced I was pregnant.
While my affinity for French cuisine matured, my conversational skills have remained at teenage levels. My mother-in-law, Marcia Lebos, who taught French at Windsor Forest High in the ‘80s and was known as "Madame Lee-Beau" to the many Savannah students she chaperoned on trips to France, used to encourage me to chat with her so I'd be as comfortable with French words coming out of my mouth as I am with croissants going in. While we never much got past talking about the weather, it was especially fun infuriating our uncomprehending husbands.
(Sadly, her French was one of the first things to go when the dementia crept up on this wonderful lady. She still smiles when we sing "Frère Jacques," and I never see a fleur de lis without thinking of her. If she was still able, she would infuse every French Savannah Forum event with her joie de vivre.)
These days I'm surrounded by French speakers on all sides: My brother is marrying a lovely Parisian girl, who is also understanding of my strange-but-unconscious habit of adopting other people's accents.
But I'll be stammering in front of her entire family at the wedding this fall if I don't quit choking over every bon mot. My son, however, has already been emailing his future cousin-in-laws like un champion thanks to Google Translator. I'm not sure Madame Lee-Beau would approve.
Even armed with an iPad, it's challenging to express oneself authentically in conversation. For instance, the ubiquitous English expression "WTF?" translates into the unreasonably proper "Qu'est-ce que ça peut bien faire" - literally, "what is going on here?"
How is that supposed to flow naturally when some shmuck on his cell phone swerves into your lane without using a blinker?
Still, conversing in another language not only helps with familial communication but contributes to one's overall savoir-faire, so I keep at it. Back in the charming Foxy Loxy courtyard, I tried out a few basic phrases with the Gedroycs and Savannah's other Francophiles.
Though I may have mistakenly directed someone towards the oven instead of the bathroom, I think I avoided declaring myself la idiote du village. cs