French Class: The Perils of Pierre

I transferred to Wright State University in the winter of 1982 to get a bachelor of arts degree.  My academic advisor told me that I needed a foreign language, and I signed up for French 101 that summer.  The class time was 8 a.m..  I worked third shift on weekends, and transferred to a normal sleep schedule each Monday so that I could stay awake for day classes.  8 in the morning presented a challenge early in the week, but I adjusted by Wednesday.  But if I arrived groggy and slow witted, my professor, Pierre Horne, had a manner of teaching that woke me up immediately.  He often placed his pointer finger on the side of one nostril and intoned the French word “un”.  The  nasal sound of the extended vowel, which reminded me of a garbage disposal whining after it had ground up its last bit of refuse, made the underside of my brain itch with irritation.  I  also stirred to a functional level of alertness when the professor spouted a steady stream of mushy vowels and consonants while pointing to objects in the room.  He paused to ask students questions about what he had just spoken, and chose his victims randomly.  When he called on me he stared with an expectant look that said, “Only a complete moron would fail to understand the beauty and majesty of the French language.”  After my inevitable moment of humiliation, of sputtering the few words I recalled that may or may not have been apropos, he always called on a willowy blonde two seats up the row.  She would answer at length in perfect French, and he would compliment her on her impeccable Parisian accent.  I hated that girl.

Eventually I picked up a understanding of French grammar as the professor began to relent and explain the basics in English.  I passed the first test but was stumped by one question.  Professor Horne spoke a phrase in French, and we were supposed to translate it into English.  He said, “Les voix des anges.”  That sounded like “Lay vwah dez on jzuh.”  I asked him to repeat it, and he obliged with a superior smile.  I understood that “les” was “the”, and “des” was “of the” but had no idea what “voix” and “anges” meant.  We hadn’t used those words in class when we discussed going to the library, our dietary preferences, the names of pieces of furniture, and the color of Gabrielle‘s hair, blouse and skirt.  I asked the professor after the test for the correct translation of the phrase, and he told me it meant “the voices of angels”.  I later paged through the text book several times and finally found “les voix des anges” in a caption beneath a photograph of Notre Dame in Paris.  The choir, apparently, sounded like the voices of angels when they sang in the cathedral’s choir loft.  Why hadn’t Gabrielle, my fictitious amie, stressed the importance of that nugget of information before the test?

One unfortunate lad joined the class late.  He had been in Israel studying Hebrew and found the transition into French difficult.  He annoyed Professor Horne especially when he pronounced “je”, the French word for “I” as “juh” instead of “jzzzuh”.  Pierre got incensed every time the kid butchered the French language and would cry out, “What is this juh-juh?  There is no such thing as juh!”

When the professor was in a happier mood he would muse about the oddities of American culture and the backward nature of life in Ohio.  He related anecdotes about a disastrous wine tasting at a local winery, the foulness of peanut butter,  and the rudeness of a bank clerk who said, “Hello, Pierre,” after she read his name on a form.  He expected her to address him formally as Mr. Horne as she and he were perfect strangers.  In France no one would dare to assume such intimacy (using someone’s first name) until a relationship had evolved much further.  (Perhaps his father had addressed his mother as Madame Horne until after the birth of their third child.)

I had to take two more semesters of French and chose another professor.  This man, whose name escapes me, spoke English with a French accent spiked with New York gutturals.  He had been born in Russia, escaped with his parents to Paris, and eventually settled in Brooklyn.  Having learned to speak three languages by the time he was a teenager he held the French language in lower esteem.  It was one of many.  He was much kinder and patient with us, and made no disparaging remarks about Ohio and the United States.  He did show us the 1950s film noir, “Hiroshima Mon Amour”, in which a French woman tells her Japanese lover that she was horrified when she and her friends listened to a news report about the Hiroshima nuclear bombing.  Her eyes filled with tears as she whispered to her Amour Japonais, “When we spoke of Hiroshima we said, ‘Those American bastards!'”  Two questions occurred to me after I read that subtitle:  Why would a French woman, a survivor of the Nazi Occupation, sympathize with an WWII ally of Germany? And why did the French flaunt a bias against Americans as if they were making a principled stand?

My new professor was a friend of Professor Horne and knew that many of us had taken his colleague for the introductory course.  He told us that Horne was on sabbatical in Paris where he intended to absorb as much of the latest French slang as possible.  I expected that our snobbish professor would be glorying in a return to the land of his birth where the cuisine enchanted the palate and bank tellers greeted customers with frosty aloofness.  We heard the opposite, however.  Apparently Professor Horne was homesick.  He found the French hostile and rude and missed the open friendliness of folks in the Midwest.  Pierre longed to return to Ohio, Wright State, and his sleepy, dull-witted students who insisted on butchering the most beautiful language ever spoken.

I took perverse pride in the fact that we had somehow managed to pull him down to our level.  Perhaps on his return he would dash out to the local supermarket and buy a loaf of spongy white American bread, a giant tub of sticky peanut butter, and a jug of Ohio wine that “tasted like turpentine”.   He might even beam with pleasure when the cashier called him “hon” and asked him about his weird accent (“Are you from Canada, Pee-air?”).



Existentialism and Grocery Shopping

When I woke up today it was drizzling. It rarely ever drizzles in central Florida in the morning unless a tropical storm is grazing the coast. I knew that the latest named storm in the Atlantic was at least three days away from possibly washing my house off its foundation, and for a second I thought that I was still living in Pennsylvania where gloomy skies are the dominant weather condition. The palm tree down the block was a clear indication that I was mistaken.

The world seemed out of kilter as I staggered to the kitchen to make a diet shake. My wife was still sleeping, and I figured that the sound of the blender would wake her up in time to keep her on her schedule. She croaked to me from her bedroom as I walked by with my drink in hand, and I could see that she was feeling better. (We’re both recovering from a nasty, lingering virus that I probably picked up at work. I teach at a community college, and my students have lately been falling by the wayside, staggering off to the restroom, asking questions with a glazed look in their eyes that looks more like nausea than academic fervor.)

I read too long in the bathroom and ran late for my errand of the day: groceries. I rattled the car keys and Judy emerged from the other bathroom to tell me that she needed three things. I lied and said that I had delayed my trip in hopes of the rain drying up. No sooner had the words escaped my mouth when the heavens opened and a deluge poured down. I accepted my punishment, put on my fedora and a wind breaker, and sloshed through puddles in the driveway to the car. I remembered to take my paycheck with me and decided to stop first at an ATM to make a deposit and get cash.

As I sat at the stop light at Aloma and Semoran I recalled my last trip to a Publix. Three days ago I turned onto an exit drive to head home, and a car flashed in front of me from a gas station to my left. I took my foot off the gas to let the car cut across my path, and the driver slowed down, turned toward me and gave me the finger as he drove past. His expression reminded me of a fat playground bully who had just taken a cupcake away from another kid: belligerent with a touch of self-righteous determination to hold onto what should have always been his. I returned the favor, but it was too late—he had already turned away from me. I considered following him and perhaps ramming my crappy ’94 Honda into the rear of his car, but decided that I didn’t want to be a headline in a TV news story read by a bored anchorman: “A road rage incident at a local Publix turns into a tragedy. Details at 11.” I wondered what the asshole had expected from me when he cut me off—should I have smiled and blown him kisses?

The light turned green and none of the other drivers around me tried anything stupid or possibly fatal as we drove through the rain. The ATM screen at the far end of the Publix lot blinked in a manic fashion as I stepped up to it. I pushed in my card, selected “English” and tried to enter my password. The screen blinked, my card was ejected and a notice came up that the transaction had taken too long. I tried again and stabbed at the keys to enter two numbers of my password before the same thing happened again. A few split seconds were too long for my impatient, automated friend. I gave up and decided to do my shopping by credit card.

The carts were locked together in the entrance way, and when I managed to finally free one it bumped into a kiddy cart which knocked over a trash can. I righted the can and used a hand wipe from a dispenser by the door, and a woman slid up and took my cart. I sarcastically said, “Well, that was my cart.” She stammered an apology, but I waved her away and began wrestling out another cart from the stack. She could take my cart but she couldn’t take away my right to play martyr.

I still wore my fedora and windbreaker as I pushed my cart through the aisles. I attracted no notice from anyone as I trudged up and down except from a thirty year old blonde who looked askance at me as I walked by. She wrinkled her nose and her lips curled slightly in suppressed disgust. Apparently I didn’t pass muster when it came to my choice of rain gear, or perhaps she noticed that I looked like crap from being sick for 8 days. I restrained the urge to sneak up behind her and cough.

After I loaded my groceries into the car I headed to the main exit lane and discovered a semi parked in my way. I waited for the driver to back up the trailer into a loading area along the side of the strip, but he kept idling in place. I had to get home and start lunch for Judy, so I turned around and steered for the middle exit where I would have to take a left on Aloma without benefit of a light. That was a dangerous maneuver in any weather, so I pulled around one more time and found the first exit lane no longer blocked. The truck driver was now idling at a red light at the lot exit. He had apparently been taking a few moments when he blocked the road to relax and think a few happy thoughts. I was so pleased for him as I sat behind the truck and inhaled diesel exhaust, so glad that he had had a chance to regroup his energies for his tasks ahead.

When I got home Judy was sitting on the sofa fully dressed. She had stayed in her night gown and bathrobe the day before. I knew that she was feeling better and my spirits briefly lifted like the raised hand of a dying man bidding the world farewell.

I decided to stay home for the rest of the day, or until the skies cleared. I didn’t want to drag around town as if I were a character in a French Existentialist movie, the post WWII ones in black and white where everyone sits at small tables in dark cafes smoking cigarettes, sipping wine, and saying things that sound elegantly melancholy until you read the translation:

“Where are the baguettes?”
“We are out of baguettes.”
“Yes! And no one knows when the baguettes will return…No one.”