Oregon State University, 2003
The worst grade I ever received, in 16 years of schooling, was a C- in French my freshman year of college. After a particularly disastrous oral exam in which I claimed my father was a mango, my teacher took me aside and said, “What you’re doing is, you’re laying down and peeing into the air, and the pee comes back down on your own face.” I nodded somberly. I had no idea what he meant, but I knew I sucked at French. In one way or another, I was totally peeing on my own face.
Fast forward to present day. Nick and I are kicking off a multi-city tour through Europe with a stop in Montreal, a city where 68% of the population speaks French. The majority of people here speak English too, but I’m dedicated to learning French, to getting it right this time.
On day one, I’m trying to order a sandwich in French and completely butcher a simple sentence. “Désolé,” I say, “my French is so bad.” The woman at the counter smiles and says, in perfect English, “Thank you for trying. It means a lot to us when people try,” and then, with a wink, “especially Americans — no offense.”
Nick and I are at a sushi restaurant in Montreal, and we’ve managed to interpret almost the whole menu except for one word: “homard.” “What does ‘homard’ mean?” I ask Nick, who doesn’t know either. We’re stumped, and too hungry to spend extra time figuring it out. We order other things. They’re delicious.
Walking home from lunch, we round a corner and come face to face with a towering billboard with a picture of a lobster on it, labeled “HOMARD” in 10-foot-letters. “So I guess homard means lobster,” I say, craning my neck to read the rest of the text on the sign. It’s an ad for a lobster festival, but it might as well be a giant vocab flashcard. That’s the beauty of immersion language learning: half the work is just paying attention.
There’s so much that I genuinely enjoy about being in a new place where I don’t speak the language. I love the richness of new sounds in my ears, the mad rush to figure things out before making a fool of myself (that almost always ends in failure), the feeling of sparks in my brain as new connections are made, as greetings and advertisements and interactions start to make sense. But there’s one thing I really miss: making jokes. It’s hard to be funny when you only know about 10 words of a language and 4 of them are “Where is the bathroom?”
One day I’m standing in line at a coffee shop. There’s a big cookie sitting out on the counter. It is, in my estimation, hilariously big.
Oh my god, I realize, this is my chance.
I order my coffee (“Je voudrais un cafe, s’il vous plais”) and then I pick up the cookie and point to it, eyes wide. “Grande!” I say. This is literally the most complex joke I can create at my current level of French: pointing out that a big cookie is big. Is it even a joke? Maybe we’ll call it “observational humor.” Or prop comedy. If only I had an oversized hammer to smash my grande cookie.
I stand there frozen in my silly facial expression, holding my cookie prop aloft. There is a horrible moment of silence. And then she’s laughing. She’s laughing really hard. And I don’t know if she’s laughing with me or at me and even though I’m 99% sure it’s the latter, I don’t care. I made a joke in French. And I killed.
A couple days later I try the same line at another cafe. The cookie isn’t as big. The barista is confused. I walk out in shame.
From Montreal we head to Paris, which is nearly empty because everyone goes on vacation in August. Most businesses are closed, and for a few weeks the normally loud, bustling, crowded city has the vibe (and population) of a small town. Thankfully there’s a fromagerie next to our apartment that’s still open. A mother and daughter work there, and although I can’t understand most of what they’re saying, I understand that the mother is teaching the daughter the trade, with the expectation that the daughter will take over the business one day. I ask for their recommendations and say “oui” to big chunks of Brie de Meaux and aged chevre. I buy apricot yogurt in a pretty glass jar.
While walking around Paris Nick and I stumble upon a boutique called “Winona.” I get so excited I run inside. The store is empty (because it’s August) except for a single saleswoman. “Je m’appelle Winona!” I say to her triumphantly, as if I’ve cracked some kind of code and won the game. She looks vaguely amused and slightly concerned, the same reaction one might have to a young child professing their love for an oven mitt. My friend Sarah will later point out that this is kind of like walking into a Forever 21 and yelling, “I’m 21!”
I love ordering espresso at brasseries. Specifically cafe noisette, which is a shot of espresso with a little bit of steamed milk. I love sidling up to the bar next to old Parisian men pounding white wine at 8AM. “Une noisette, s’il vous plais,” I say, and then I stand there sipping from the little ceramic cup, watching, listening. An espresso in Paris is always around 1 euro, but the price varies a bit from bar to bar. When I’m done, I ask, “C’est combien?” (“how much is it?”) and this is when all my illusions of being a cool, polished, French woman come crashing down.
I don’t understand French numbers, which is partially my fault for not studying them hard enough, and mostly France’s fault for making them CRAZY CONFUSING. Once you get past 10, the phrases to describe numbers get more and more ridiculous. “Ninety-eight,” for example, is “quatre-vingt-dix-huit,” which translates to something like, “Four twenties plus ten and eight.”
So while it seems simple, asking a bartender how much I owe for my coffee, in reality I might as well be saying, “How much is my coffee but could you answer in the form of an old-timey riddle in a language I don’t know and also speak as fast as you possibly can?”
So every time I take my last sip of espresso, I ask “C’est combien?” only to stand there, slack-jawed and confused as the bartender responds with a jumble of French math equations.
“C’est combien?” I ask again in a more high-pitched tone, leaning forward, tucking my hair behind my ear as if I simply didn’t hear the answer the first time. They say it again, slower and louder, and I’m finally cornered in my incomprehension. The bartender, rightfully annoyed now, repeats the price one more time, as loudly and clearly as a cranky preschool teacher. Defeated, I hold out a handful of euros and have them choose the correct change.
Nick and I meet up with our friends Sarah, who’s French, and Shawn, her American husband, for a road trip down the French coast. We go to Brittany and eat massive piles of fresh seafood. We buy striped shirts. We drink sparkling rosé. We head south toward Spain. During a long stretch of driving, as I’m annoyingly reading every road sign aloud to work on my pronunciation, Sarah looks at me in the rearview mirror and says, “Winona, your French is really good.” This is maybe the best compliment I’ve ever received. The only thing that might be better? If she said, “Winona, there’s no pee on your face.”