display | more...

When I first went to France I noticed that many of the dogs there had the same name: Ici. I said to Jean-Alfred, "I guess 'Ici' is the same as 'Rover' in English."

He asked me to spell "rover". His English was very good but not perfect, and perhaps he thought "rover" was like the French verbs ending in "er". He replied, "No, it means 'here', not 'to rove'; it's an adverb, not an infinitive."

I didn't know what that had to do with a dog's name so I said, "Oh, I see". The light bulb didn't go on for several weeks. When I realized that people were telling their dogs "here" (ici) and not using proper French as in "come here" (viens ici), I probably went and had another drink. F'n French!

Being a foreigner is a very frustrating experience. First you must learn the rules, then you must learn when to break them.

I learned slowly, laboriously. A hard-boiled egg was un œuf dur (a hard egg). My next-door neighbor kept chickens and I gave her my discarded greens whenever I cleaned lettuce for a salad. Now and then she gave me freshly-laid eggs. One day she went into her house and came back with two eggs, telling me that they were dur. When Jean-Alfred cracked one on the rim of his plate the yolk slid over the edge of the table and plopped into his lap.

"She said they were hard-boiled", I told him. How was I to know (as he explained) that she was telling me it was hard (difficult) to come up with eggs for barter when the hens weren't laying? All I had wanted to do was to give the chickens a little treat and make use of the outer salad leaves.

Do you want to live in a foreign country? C'est dur, très dur au début.

I learned that Merci ! was "thank you" and that just plain Merci,  with no inflection, was "no, thank you". Was this more verbal shorthand like the "ici" thing? Who knows? Not me.

At Christmas time I made an evergreen wreath and hung it on the front door. The neighbors asked who had died. The French flag has the same three colors as the Old Glory of the United States, but it is not "red, white and blue" it is "bleu, blanc et rouge" (blue, white and red). The bus into town doesn't leave the crossroads at eleven forty-five, it departs at "noon less a quarter" (midi moins le quart).

I could go on and on. And I did. After a while I stopped bitching about “them”. I stopped rushing up to English-speaking tourists in the supermarket and suggesting a Bleu de Bresse in lieu of the Stilton they were searching for, or explaining that “the French” do not use Daddy’s Sauce.

A few centuries passed and I took several more baby steps. During this time we were working in West Africa and used the house in France for semi-annual month-long vacations. Now and then, between jobs, we would spend several additional months in Provence. Gradually I began to develop a French outlook on things.

I didn't realize this until the evening we were invited to a cocktail party at the British Embassy in Lagos, Nigeria. I was standing in a group of stiff upper-lipped expatriates who were chatting about their children's ponies. One turned to me and remarked,

"In America you use those enormous cowboy saddles, don't you?"

I gave him my best party smile and answered, "Actually, I'm French and in my country we eat horses."

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.