Please Don't Spit in My Salad

(Ne Jeter Pas dans Mon Salad, S’il Vous Plait)

Christopher Thomas Schmidt

© Copyright 2005 by Christopher Thomas Schmidt

Photo by P.J.Capretz

A crash course in truly useful, and useless, French phrases.

 I took three years of French in high school. I got a lot of C’s. I went to France in my late twenties. The French I retained to that point wouldn’t have filled a fortune cookie. In attempt to recover lost knowledge I tried to study up on some conversational tidbits on the plane on the way over. Armed with a one-hundred and fifty page phrase book and three years of public-school French with a decade’s worth of dust on it, I didn’t get far. The major problem, as I see it, in pursuing such a hopeless endeavor is not my inherent ignorance—though this is no small stumbling block—rather it is the make up of the average phrase book. To make use of any foreign language phrase book that is currently available, you need to already have a functional vocabulary in that language, as well as a firm grasp on its pronunciation, conjugation and grammatical intricacies. Without the above expertise, you may be able to flounder your way into a conversation, sounding out a few generally flawed questions, assuming your book includes an ever-helpful pronunciation guide. But what hope do you have of understanding the responses to any of your inquiries? I can tell you from experience, you have no hope.

 Pouvez-vous me recommander un bon hôtel?

 Can you recommend a good hotel?

 Taken from the first chapter of my phrase book, this seems relatively straight forward, and is not too difficult to pronounce or remember. Right, try saying it to a French person and watch what happens. A common result is to simply have the word, “Non!” spat at you as your new acquaintance pushes past you in a hurry to have you out of his life. If you are lucky enough to consult someone who is feeling particularly helpful (bon chance), what you can expect is a response replete with an excess of vowels and unfamiliar contractions, which you haven’t a prayer of following. If you are really lucky you won’t have butchered this person’s native language too severely in the first place, and will spare yourself the indignity of having a complete stranger sneer at you.

 Despite the tremendous language barrier which makes almost any question found in a phrase book moot, typical language guides contain a large number of phrases that are intrinsically useless if not utterly bizarre:

 Quelle comestibles dois-je éviter quand au cette medicament?

 What foods should I avoid while on this medication?

 In a book that reads like a telephone directory of impractical conversation starters, this one jumps from the pages. I am instantly struck with images of a countless situations during a typical French holiday where this might come up. Why, in the airport alone one would have three or four opportunities to engage a native Frenchman in a discussion concerning the reactive properties of certain medicines. Okay, I am willing to accept for the purpose of discussion that the need for this question may exist, however, in my book it appears early in a chapter bearing the title “Useful Expressions.” While there are a number of justly useful expressions in this chapter—“Where is the post office?” “Do you have the time?” “Is rudeness some sort of a Parisian genetic disorder?”—I find the presence of the medication question curious. I would think that potentially life-determining information such as this would be something you would want to discuss with your own doctor, or at least someone who is capable of communicating with you in a language you understand. And, as I say, the likely answer to such a complex question is bound to be confusing to you, especially if you need a phrase book to even pose the question in the first place. I believe the occasional traveler would be better served if the “Useful Expressions” chapter was limited to more immediate and comprehensible inquiries like “Do you sell this wine by the case?” and “Are there alligators in this water?”

 More “Useful Expressions”:

 Il me faut quelque chose pour un tourniquet.

 I need something for a tourniquet.

 Personally, I haven’t found this phrase terribly “useful” in any language in any of my thirty-plus years of life. Upon reflection, however, I suspect that if you find yourself bleeding uncontrollably from some appendage, you’re gonna want this one.

 Je parle seulement anglais.

 I only speak English.

 This will be obvious. Strangely, one’s inability to speak French is apparent to the French even before one opens their mono-linguistic mouth. In almost every shop, hotel and restaurant I was greeted in English without having uttered so much as a word. Not sure if my style of dress gives me away, or my hairstyle or just the look on my face, but somehow they all knew. Not sure if it was just a coincidence, but in almost every shop, hotel and restaurant I was not well received.

 Je ne parle pas bien votre lange.

 I do not speak your language well.

 Again, obvious. Anyone thumbing a phrase book and stammering inquiries about medication and alligators is not likely to need to tell anyone that they “ne parle pas bien.”

 Je viens des Etats-Unis.

 I am from the United States.

 Given historically chilly international relations, American travelers should not be overly enthusiastic with this one. To my phrase book’s limited credit, this declaration does not appear as a “Useful Expression.” It is listed in another, later chapter entitled, “Greetings and Introductions.” To be truly helpful, it should probably appear in the “Greetings that are Likely to Get You a Bad Table” chapter.

 Je suis charme de faire votre connaissance.

 I am happy to make your acquaintance.

 The second most worthless French phrase after Merci (Thank You). It is entirely possible that I simply feel hard done by because of the poor impression I made a la the Parisian locals, and that the French aren’t so bad. Screw that, everyone in Paris, to a nose-in-the-air one was fiercely and deliberately rude, and they have not earned the benefit of my doubt. The chances are nil, but were I to meet someone to whom I would even consider saying, “Je suis charme de faire votre connaissance,” the mere act of doing so would doubtlessly put them off, as nothing seems to upset a Frenchman quite like a dithering American mispronouncing words like connaissance at them out of a book (see also, “Je me suis amusé notre temps ensemble.” “I have enjoyed our time together,” and “J’espère vous revoir bientôt.” “I hope to see you again.”).

 Phrases for the wistfully naïve:

 J’ai mes bagages à la gare.

 I have baggage at the station.

 J’ai perdu mon portefeuille.

 I have lost my wallet.

 Je voudrais bien louer une chaise longue.

 I want to rent a deck chair.

 J’ai le mal de mer.

 I am seasick.

 Je pense me dois un changer l’huile.

 I think I need an oil change.

 Useless phrases all. If you are determined, however, to make use of these, or any such pointlessly empathy-dependent statement, you will want to learn the French for “So what?” as this is the typical response you will receive.

 Donnez-moi une chamber grand lit pour deux.

 Give me a room with a double bed.

 I find this phrase interesting mainly for its frankness. Most of the entries in my book come in the frame of a polite request; “Will you get me a taxi?” “Please stop spitting on me.” “Can you bring me something to eat besides cheese?” that sort of thing. Then we come to the chapter dealing with hotels and everything takes on a noticeably brusque quality. Without even the pretense of pleasantry, the “Hotels and Accommodations” chapter details a series demands and general argument starters. “I do not like this room.” “Don’t you have anything cheaper/larger/with more light/on a lower floor?” “I want to see your manager.” All seem to foreshadow what appears to be an unpleasant and unavoidable confrontation awaiting the traveler upon check in. When you ultimately reach your overpriced destination, complete with the infuriating nerve-twisting clerk behind the counter, you will understand, and you will be thankful for such preparations.

 My recommendation to travelers, try to limit your questions to those which solicit a “yes” or “no” answer. “Yes” in French is “oui,” and “no” is simply “non.” Uncomplicated, easy to remember, easy to understand. Following this simple rule will help abbreviate any potentially extensive and embarrassing conversation that a statements like, “Où puis-je louer un garage?” (Where can I rent a garage?) is likely to encourage. When asking for directions, try to be close enough to your destination that whomever you ask can easily point to it. Sure, remembering “droite” for right and “gauche” for left isn’t terribly difficult, but with a vocabulary that doesn’t extend beyond a pocket-sized phrase book, is the sentence, “Tout droit pour trios blocs de ville, et pass La Rue de les Ecoles, en avant sur La Rue de la Vinicole, via l’arondisement 14e quelle est presque deux mil à l’ouest de ou tu veux, tourner au nord pres de le Jardin de Luxemburg, gauche a la dernier cercle et garez votre voiture dans le premier place tu vois, et voila, ” going to make any sense to you at all?

 When speaking a foreign tongue that you, at best, barely understand, less is definitely more. When speaking French to a people who would sooner you gargle broken glass than trample their beautiful and sacred language, less is still too much. Keep your questions simple, keep your responses short, and when in doubt keep your mouth shut. Nod a lot, talk very little, and if you must use a phrase book, it makes a great coaster for your wine glass.

 Merci, et adieu.

 Thank you, don’t take this personally.

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