"In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language."
- The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain
Murray’s and my French have improved dramatically since we got here but we both make lots of mistakes. Especially me, as I do most of the talking. The French word for misunderstanding is “malentendu,” or mis-hearing. We’ve come to be quite familiar with it.
In September, I was very proud of myself for having watched a French documentary on TV about a Russian art collector who was exciled for his offensive Modern art and fled to Paris. I had just seen the exhibit of his collection at the Fondation Louis Vuitton and was telling the story to a fashion designer I had just met over lunch. I explained that the collector simply disappeared in Paris at the age of 80. “Oh,” she said sympathetically, “you mean he died.” No, I insisted, the documentary said he disappeared: “il est disparu.” “That’s one of the ways they say died in French,” she laughed. Which explains the mystery of all the disappearing senior citizens in Paris, I thought.
Another time Murray and I were on a sunny patio at the train station that got too hot so we moved into the shade. I popped my head in the tell the waiter we had moved, in case he thought we’d done a “bouffe et baskets,” the funny French term for eat and run, referring to basketball shoes. Later, the waiter came by our table and asked “where is your truck?” He then explained that the word I used for “moved” (“déménager”) is reserved for moving house, not changing tables. We all laughed.
There were also more awkward misundertandings, like the first time I got a bikini wax in Paris. Lying on the table, the aesthetician asked me to do a “plié.” I’m like, “I’m getting a wax, and you want me to do ballet?!” (Turns out plié also just means bend your leg.)
I once got really offended when a French person commented on my Instagram account that my photos of Paris were very “cliché.” Outraged, I check his account and saw tons of stock looking pictures of the Eiffel Tower- who are you calling cliché?! Turns out in France cliché is a compliment.
Finally, Murray said to me one day, “Did you know the French have a really nice way of explaining when one is taking a year abroad, like us?” He’d heard our French friend Alexandra say we were taking “une année sympathique,” which roughly translates as “nice year” or “good year.” I like that, I said, but I’m pretty sure she said “une année sabatique,” meaning sabbatical year. I guess we all hear what we want to hear.