Geoff Pullum of Language Log recently posted about one brief shining moment when he successfully deployed his limited Finnish well enough to sound like a fluent speaker. It reminded me of my favorite story of about speaking French. It was back in the summer of 1990 … [harp music, picture getting wavy]
Glen and I were traveling in Europe, staying in youth hostels (well, trying to stay in them, but that’s another story) and other cheap lodgings. It was a Friday night, and we had just ridden the ferry from Dover, England to Calais, France. We got there at about midnight. Glen and I had heard about a campground in the area, and luckily, this was one of the lodgings we were actually able to find (after an hour of hiking through an industrial district). The check-in office was closed, though, and besides, it turned out we didn’t have enough money to stay there—as usual, we’d gotten caught on a Friday night without having converted enough of our travelers’ checks to the local currency, and all the money exchanges were closed. So we decided we’d just have to sneak in through one of the broken bars in the fence that surrounded the grounds, and sleep in shifts in the open air.
The campground was a flat, sandy park, partially surrounded by low terraces. The one we chose was slightly elevated on a low hill from the rest of the camp, and from it we could keep an eye out for possible security guards. On the other side of the fence, the hill descended about fifteen feet to a broad parking lot outside the camp, and beyond was the shore, so we had a good view of what was going on all around us. Glen agreed to be the first to sleep, so he spread out one of the sleeping bags next to a bench that sat in the middle of the terrace, shoving our bags underneath the bench. After two hours, I woke Glen and we switched places. I pulled off my shoes and climbed into the sleeping bag as he began his watch.
"Neal, wake up!" was the next thing I heard. "Someone's coming!"
Oh, great, I thought, it's a guard come to throw us out. Well, I'd better get ready to speak some polite French with him. Glen pointed to the approaching figure, and it wasn't a guard at all. It was a man, coming not from the campground, but from the parking lot below. I recognized him: It was a dark-complexioned, black-haired guy I'd seen on the beach during my watch. We kept watching as he walked up the sidewalk toward the terrace, as it became apparent that he was indeed aiming for us. Finally he appeared at the edge of the terrace.
"Bon soir," I said. Glen stood at a distance, watching.
"Bon soir," the man said. He walked over to the bench and sat down. He seemed to be in his mid-twenties, was clean shaven and had dark eyes. I was still sitting up in the sleeping bag, making sure I could still feel my wallet in my pocket.
He introduced himself--his name was Luigi--and made friendly conversation. Not wanting to antagonize him, I conversed. I learned that he had an Italian name because he was, in fact, Italian, but was working here at some nightclub. He learned that Glen and I were brothers, and seemed a little surprised. The conversation continued with lots of small talk, and I began to wonder if Luigi had a point. I kept making sure I knew where my wallet was and where the travelers' checks were stashed; Glen kept walking around on the patio, keeping an eye on us. As Luigi sat and talked, I began to get annoyed. How long did he plan to stay? Why was he just sitting here and talking with a total stranger? What did he want? Didn't he know we were trying to sleep?
I was still sitting in the sleeping bag when Luigi pointed to my shoes and said something about them. I didn't catch exactly what he said, but I did hear chaussures, so I said yes, those were my shoes. Then he shook his head, pointed again, and I realized he was indicating the foil-like lining of the sleeping bag that was visible next to the shoes. Ah, I must have heard him say not chaussures, but chaud. He was asking if the sleeping bag was hot, probably impressed with the hi-tech lining. So I said sure, it was pretty warm, thinking that this was about the most pointless turn the conversation had yet taken. Luigi reached down from the bench to the sleeping bag and felt the lining with the back of his hand. What, I was thinking, he just has to see for himself how incredibly warm the lining is? Then he reached into the sleeping bag and I finally got the picture.
I jumped out of the sleeping bag, sat on the opposite end of the bench from Luigi, and started putting on my shoes. There was an awkward silence. Then Luigi turned to me and asked,
"Tu veux faire sucir?"
Did I want to what? I couldn't believe I’d heard him right, though I guess at this point I should have. They hadn’t taught the verb sucir in my high school French class, or even in my advanced oral expression French class at college. But I remembered it from a pornographic French novel I’d read, so after asking him to repeat the question, I answered, "Euh…non, merci."
There was another awkward pause. Luigi asked, "Moi a` toi?" (Me to you?)
No, that didn't really change things. "Non."
He was silent for a little longer, and then he nodded in Glen's direction. "Et lui?"
I didn't ask Glen before I told Luigi, "Lui non plus" (Him neither).
Luigi nodded, said, "Tant pis" (too bad), got up, and wandered back the way he'd come.
"What was that all about?" Glen wanted to know. I waited until Luigi was back on the parking lot below, making his way to the beach, before I told him.