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A Chowhound loses his veneer of omniscience in France

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A Chowhound loses his veneer of omniscience in France

PRSMDave | Jun 17, 2002 02:37 PM

And now, a story of hubris struck down on our Chowhounding honeymoon in Paris:

I pride myself on speaking French very well and with a minimum of ridiculous American accent (while it's obvious that I'm American, my French accent is actually more Marseillais.) Lest you think, however, that I am some paragon of French language, you should know that my recent foray into French linguistic immersion has revealed some serious vocabulary gaps, mostly things that you would never bother learning the words for until you had some pressing need. Unfortunately, when I encounter such a linguistic gap, I tend to wax poetic and lyrical, giving ordinary objects Proustian levels of description.

One such object came as I was having issues in a café bathroom. I found the barkeep and said, "Le truc en acier qui oblige l'eau de sortir du bol en porcelain à grande vitesse est tombé en panne." ("The steel thing which obliges the water to exit from the porcelain bowl at a high rate of speed has fallen into disrepair.") He looked at me, guffawed, and called out to someone else, "Eh, Jean-Marie, la chasse d'eau est encore foutue." ("Hey, Jean-Marie, the toilet flush is f***ed up again.")

Another one came at a crêpe stand in the 9th arrondissement. Having ordered a Nutella-and-banana crêpe for Linnea, I wanted a certain kind of crêpe for myself but didn't know what to call it. "Je voudrais une crêpe à la sauce couleur brune faite des noix que les Anglais font rôtir sur un feu ouvert à Noël," I said, and started humming a tune. ("I would like a crepe with a brown-hair-coloured sauce made from nuts which English people roast on an open fire at Christmas.") The Greek behind the counter stared in total incomprehension, while the French cashier laughed and said, "Ça, ce sont les marrons. Il veut une crêpe crème marron." ("Those are chestnuts. He wants a chestnut-cream crêpe.") I failed in my object, however, having been given two Nutella-and-banana crêpes. Damn.

Finally, the first day I was in Paris, I ordered an entrée (which, in France, is the starter, not the main course... the main course is called a "plat"). Not having a menu in front of me, but knowing the typical offerings of a brasserie, I ordered "une entrée du légume officiel du Pays-de-Galles, ce truc vert-clair qui ressemble à un céléri mais qui a le goût des oignons jeunes, qu'on mange à la vinaigrette." ("A starter of the official vegetable of Wales, that light-green thing which looks like a celery but tastes like young onions, which you eat with vinaigrette.") In frustration, I finally pointed, and the server said, "Ah, Monsieur désire des poireaux vinaigrette. Très bien." ("Oh, Monsieur would like leeks vinaigrette. Very well.")

It did get better, but I do wish I'd brought a pocket dictionary with me so I could have looked up "chestnuts", "leeks" and "flush".

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