Saturday, August 30, 2008


When I'm in Quebec I'm usually confused about what to do. Do I speak English? Do I speak French? Depends on if I'm in Montreal or Trois-Rivières, I suppose, but no matter what city I'm in the fact remains that my French is ghastly. In one effort to dispel the arrogance and imperialism of English, I attempted French: "Je veux un... um, une? café avec beaucoup de du de creme et sucre, s'il --." The woman behind the register cut me off with, "Cream and sugar are behind you. Would you like this for here or to go?"

At Vietnamese restaurants the server doesn't want to hear you order "house special noodle soup with rare beef, flank, tripe, tendon, and beef balls". Less so do they care to hear you try to order in Vietnamese. So you say, "I'll have a Number 3." Or better yet, you write #3 on the chit.

For accuracy, for efficiency, for concision -- in the thrilling act of communication, whatever works works. Gestures. Objects. Numbers. English.


I met Xavier and Bénédicte on Bedford in Brooklyn. It was 7PM and we were sitting on a patio drinking pints and eating pizza. A conversation started when I asked them for their chili shaker. We remained on that patio until 3AM inebriating and chatting. They were visiting from France. Xavier's English was highly advanced; Bénédicte's English was limited; my French was horrible. But somehow Bénédicte and I managed sophisticated conversations about Truffaut and Rohmer and Francoise Hardy and Jacques Dutronc and Quebec and optometry and Sarkozy. We required Xavier's translation once in a while, but with our Anglo-Franco gestures and slowed speech, we conversed rather nicely indeed. We also drew and wrote in her notebook to illustrate ideas. For the first time in my life since high school, I spoke French with a disastrous accent and didn't feel self-conscious; Bénédicte was empathetic.

Bénédicte sent me an e-mail a few days ago -- a short paragraph in English. The English was quite good, which she and I had already discussed -- we both can write or speak the other language competently if we take our time. I'm considering responding to her in French, but I'm sure I'll make a gang of spelling and grammar mistakes. Still, my French would be communicable.

Or, I could follow the coffee pourer in Quebec who opted for efficiency... I could respond in English.

But that's not fair at all.

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