Every day, I arm myself with a French dictionary
Running out the door, I check to make sure I have my métro pass, my coat, and oh yes, my words.
This is because I am often required to construct French sentences using vocabulary I don't normally store in the obsolete Rolodex that resides inside my mind. For example, last week, I found it necessary to say, "Sorry, but a pair of my wife's underpants has landed on your balcony."
As a relative newcomer to Paris, and many great leaps away from French fluency, I usually pause to think before running headlong into the city: Now, what do I need to say today? Is it "ripe avocados," "analysis of customer profitability," or, perhaps, "thank you, but I think I'll keep that right toe after all"?
My wife and I recently purchased wall-to-wall carpeting for our bedroom. We also got a swath of this heavy-duty soundproof mat. When we'd dragged the huge rolls home with us (on the subway, since we don't have a car; we are masters of the "métro move"), we realized that we, or ideally the rug shop, had miscalculated the dimensions of the room.
Already, the rug was breaking our budget, but we'd deemed the mat essential since discovering how loud our neighbors could be. We'd need an additional chunk of matting, but already felt we couldn't afford what we'd been given.
Did the shop owe us a few free square meters, since it was, I argued, the salesman who had punched the wrong figures into his calculator?
I was determined to find out, but knew my high school French wasn't up to the task. Before I left the house that day to confront the rug shop (and face the infamous smokescreen of French customer service), I sat down with my verb book and a notepad to sketch out a grammatical plan of attack. If the sales guy says this, I thought to myself, then I'll say that.
The topper was the following sentence, which dredged up painful memories of Madame Dubois's French III class: "Had we known the rug liner might have been so expensive, we would not have bought it. Um, sir."
Armed with my sentence and a phalanx of phrases and imperfect tenses referring to the cutthroat world of floor coverings, I stormed into the rug shop.
It's odd being surrounded by language you don't quite understand. Scariest of all, after almost three years in Paris, I know enough French to at least fake my way through conversations.
It's a dangerous game because, depending on the topic or tête-à-tête partner, I can actually fool people, and myself, into thinking I'm getting it all.
Being a 2-year-old must be like this. A kid that age hears you speak, certain words or phrases make sense to him, but the rest must be inferred: "Blah kitchen blah blah hit floor blah blah blah electrocution blah blah hands naughty blah grapefruit."
The grapefruit is electrified? If I'm naughty, I'll be pummeled with grapefruit? Everything's fine, but my hands will be tied, and I'll be forced to eat the grapefruit off the kitchen floor?
Of course, it's also like this for my Parisian acquaintances who must endure my massacre of their language, their heads cocked to one side, brows knitted with sympathy.
When people ask what it's like living in Paris, I usually say, "Wonderful. I love the challenge. Yep, I'm learning every day."
What they're not hearing is the silent expatriate scream of a man who simply wants to be able to say "Give me a break!" without having to consult his online Oxford dictionary.
"I love the language, the sound, and the freedom to be in ways two people within myself," writes poet and teacher Jennifer Dick, a longtime Paris resident. "Speaking pidgin-French like the least-educated person in town is a really humbling thing, to find yourself reduced to half-verbal grunts."
Easy for her to say.
As for me, my linguistic schizophrenia has its advantages. The rug shop manager took pity on me.
After hearing my convoluted account, he handed over a few meters of black muffling mat, for free. Then he said, "No problem.
"Now, please soundproof yourself."