“Moi, je veux prendre le penne au pistou,” Lolo says to the waiter in fluent, properly French-accented French. Her order is no surprise. Pesto penne is one of my 13-year old’s favourites.
The wiry waiter turns his gaze to Philippe, who sits beside me at this restaurant spilling into Boulevard d’Aguillon, a busy pedestrian street in Antibes. “Je vais prendre le linguinis aux fruits de mer,” he says in decisive French, fluently requesting the seafood linguini even if his pronunciation isn’t exactly local.
The waiter nods and finally looks at me. “Je veux prendre le pavé de saumon,” I say in my I-began-learning-aged-35 French.
“Zhe salmon,” the waiter says back to me. In English. “Okay,” he says, and off he trots to the kitchen.
Lolo thinks it’s hilarious. Philippe says I’m doomed for the rest of my life. I simply groan. Why, once again, did a local person feel it necessary to translate my own, perfectly understandable, Anglo-accented French back to me in English? As if I didn’t understand what I was saying?
My accent is a favourite party gag within my tiny family. Now and then, the three of us will be speaking French together in our various accents when someone will ask, “How do you know each other?” Somehow I always end up the butt of the joke.
Lolo mocks my impossible French. My new teenager is remarkably consistent. Just as the penne au pistou is an established favourite, so is the topic of my Anglophone accent. My daughter began learning French in her earliest days, many of them right here in France. Her diction is perfect – perfectly French. I can still outrun her in vocabulary, but that’s unfair. I’ve lived a bit longer than she has.
Philippe’s native French, on the other hand, comes from Quebec, but he can turn his French-Canadian accent up or down as he chooses. Often times people don’t know where he’s from. He’s not from here in the South of France. He’s not from Paris. Many folks guess he’s Belgian.
Philippe tempers Lolo’s criticism of my French. Mom’s grammar is “pas mal,” he says. Then he turns to me and continues with typical delicacy, “but no one will ever take you for a native.”
I recognized a growing problem a couple years ago when Lolo and I walked home together from her school. I said something to her in French – who knows what it was exactly, but it was a simple phrase like “Comment était la journée aujourd’hui?” How was the day today?
“Your accent is so bad,” Lolo said, perfectly cutting down my French and evading my question in a single swipe.
“Comment était la journée aujourd’hui?” I said again. “What’s wrong with that?”
“Okay, then, you say it.”
Lolo’s voice became full but light, almost caressing its words. “Comment était la journée aujourd’hui?”
“That’s exactly what I said!”
“No, you said . . . , “ and here my little instigator repeated the same phrase, flattening all her vowels and imitating the looser, Anglophone accent.
She was right. That was exactly what I’d said. Our little tête-à-tête, walking home one afternoon from Lolo’s school – her primary school, I must emphasize – has put me on guard ever since.
Now a fully-fledged adolescent who has embraced the right to question her faultless parents, Lolo has begun to call me out on my accent. She picks up on situations so common to me that I no longer recognize them. One such incident happened as we shopped for that famous swimsuit for her.
“Nous cherchons un maillot de bain,” I said to the assistant on entering the swim shop. We’re looking for a swimsuit.
“Iz it for you?” She replied, in English.
“Non,” I said, trying to pick up again in French when Lolo jumped in and finished my thought in her perfect diction. The swimsuit was for her, she explained.
As Lolo battled swimsuit options in the change room, I waged war with the friendly clerk, trying to shift our conversation back into French. Between Lolo and me, only my kid succeeded. Light years later, we emerged from the shop, bag in hand, and my daughter gleefully offered her assessment.
“Your French is so bad that people always switch into English!” she said.
It was hard to argue. But progress (and personal devastation) are never linear. I suppose that’s what keeps me going. It wasn’t long after the swimsuit incursion that I got a little pumped up again about how far I’d come, linguistically speaking. The other day a young Frenchwoman asked me at the grocery store, “Savez-vous où est le beurre?”
I hadn’t yet shopped for my dairy products, so I said, “Non, je ne l’ai pas encore trouvé, mais je . . .”
“Oh,” she said, “do you know where zhe buhtter iz?”
I began again. In French. “Non, I haven’t found it yet, mais je pense qu’il est là-bas,” I said, pointing toward the dairy section at the end of the aisle.
The young woman clearly understood my French, and a few minutes later she strolled by me again with butter in her basket. “Oui, il est là-bas,” she said. In French. I had a private celebration beside the yogurts.
The biggest problem, I find, is keeping my brain switched on. Sitting back, lolling in comfort as I wait for French words to seep magically into my brain, is an extravagance I can ill afford. The easiest French interaction for me has to be ordering my family’s lunch at Chez Josy, a snack kiosk on the beach near Bellevue. Dozens of times I’ve waited in the shop’s impressive queue, and when I finally reach the window, I always order the same thing: a plain hotdog and a pan bagnat (basically a salad Niçoise on a bun), cut in two.
Recently when my turn at Chez Josy’s window arrived, I had a brief deer-in-the-headlights moment before recovering. “Un hotdog nature,” I began. Un OT-dog na-CHUR.
One hiccup, though, and the whole machine rolls off the tracks. “You canna speek een English,” the server said. He was charming, but it wasn’t what I wanted to hear.
“Oui, je peux, mais je ne le veux pas!” Yes, I can, I told him with a smile, but I don’t want to! Beside me three young Frenchwomen, each tattooed from ear to heel, cheered.
I finished my order with un pan bagnat coupé en deux and returned with lunch to Bellevue. “It’s not ‘un,’” Philippe said. “It’s ‘uhn.’” He pronounced the same word without much of the ‘n.’ “That was their tip-off right there. From the first word!”
This is my life en français. My grasp of the blessed language of Molière may be pas mal, but I have trouble practicing it in town – and I have anything but a cheerleading squad back home.
At the restaurant on Boulevard d’Aguillon, Philippe, Lolo and I enjoy our pasta and salmon dishes. Eventually my husband asks for l’addition, and together we make our way back through the restaurant’s cluster of tables to the pedestrian street.
“Merci, au revoir,” I say to our waiter on the way out. The night presses on – it’s nearly 10:00 p.m. – but I want to thank the young man for his attentive service.
The waiter nods at my words. He wishes me his own words in farewell. “Have a good day!” he says.