I have to admit, my years of college French really served me well in the two years since I've been in France. It really goes without saying - but I'll say it anyway! - that knowing a country's language helps you feel comfortable living there. It's true that I have a knack for picking up languages, even if just a few words. But, there's a difference between ordering a coffee while you're on vacation and successfully explaining yourself to landlord that it really wasn't you that broke the dishwasher and can she suggest a repairman to come fix it.
Still, we're our own worst critics. And even though my French friends tell me I speak very well, and I am able to work with my French colleagues in their language (even though the company's official language is English), I still wish I could speak better.
It was almost 14 years ago when I made the now-famous mistake in a Paris hotel by asking for more écoliers (schoolboys) instead of oreillers (pillows) for me and my sisters. Before you ask, no I didn't mention to the hotel clerk that I prefer to have six of them all around me, and my sister likes one or two between her legs when she sleeps! But, the faux pas have not stopped there.
When I first arrived, my friend was driving me to pick up my new car. It was Friday night at 5.45pm, the traffic was heavy, and the dealership closed promptly at 6pm. I called the salesman to tell him we were not far and that we would be there soon, but that we were delayed because "nous sommes branlés" in traffic. There was no response from the other end, and I looked at my friend who was staring at me with the most shocked look I had seen in a long time. I had said we were running late because we had been masturbating! No real surprise, then, that the salesman was a bit reluctant to shake my hand when I arrived.
A "normal" person would have just stopped speaking French forever. But, who ever said I was normal? Last summer, a French colleague asked me if, as an American living in France, I was surviving the heat without air conditioning. I told him that it wasn't as cold as I would like, but I was managing with the aspirateur I had in my bedroom. When he asked me if it sucked the heat from the room, I realized I had said "vacuum cleaner" instead of ventilateur (fan). Another time, I asked another friend if she'd heard the bande sonore (speed bump that makes noise as you drive over it) of a movie instead of the bande-son (soundtrack).
Not all my French is wrong, though. Sometimes it's too right. I often elicit giggles or strange looks. I called DHL once about a package they were trying to deliver to me. As I wasn't expecting anything, I wanted to know where it came from. I asked the agent on the phone, "Serait-il possible me dire qui est l'expéditeur du colis?" ("Would it be possible to tell me who is the sender of the package?") Again there was silence on the phone, for a different reason this time, and then the grunted response, "Quoi?", in this case the French equivalent of "Huh?". My colleague told me through fits of laughter to say "Dites-moi... qui me l'a envoyé." ("Tell me... who sent it to me?") The agent knew how to answer that question.
So, sometimes too much of a good thing isn't so good after all? But, for now, I'm happy to be in France and not Japan. All I remember from my one semester of Japanese is "Watashi-wa kaishain desu" ("I am an office worker") and "Watashi-wa ringo-ga suki desu" ("I like apples"). And, since they bow there instead of shaking hands, I'd never know when I said something really embarrassing!