Facesplats in French

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Last night I went to buy more minutes for my phone.  I went to the place where I bought it, where they first installed the minutes on my phone, and started my usual pattern of poking French nouns and verbs at the really helpful salesboy.  He wanted to help me, I could tell, but he could not figure out what in the heck I wanted.   At one point he took out my battery and licked it.  I knew we were way off.  Finally, he asked me in French where I was from.  I told him, sheepishly, as I always do, that I was American and then he said, relieved, “Oh, we can speak English.”  He knew a little English, but he still could never figure out these “minutes” I was trying to get from him.  He was cute, but I went away with no new minutes. 
Sometimes I feel a little large about myself here and my ability to extend simple greetings or order a meal in a restaurant.  I start imagining that French is actually rubbing off on me and that the period of time I dedicated to real study gave me a great foundation and I’m just going on from there.  And then I have an encounter, like yesterday, when I just have to leave empty-handed due to my inadequacies with the official country language and I know I’ve got some work to do.
This reminded me of some fun stories us newbies (people who are here for the first year) were sharing on a Sunday afternoon a few weeks ago.  We were at a local winery enjoying a four-hour lunch and as the winter sun began to hang near the horizon, we volunteered our most embarrassing French faux pas thus far. 
I am never good at that parlor game of sharing your most embarrassing moment, because believe me, if it’s actually my most embarrassing moment, I’m still embarrassed about it and I’m definitely not going to tell anyone.  I usually choose some little scenario that could happen to the best of people and shrug my shoulders and then the others give me a disgusted look, knowing I’m not coming clean, and move on.  That’s the way I work.
Our super cute friend, K, opened up the trust circle with a couple of her tales.   One involved a misunderstanding of the word <joli> which many Americans might think they know means happy.  In truth it means pretty and it is the similar <joie> that means happy.  Sweet K had been going all over town telling this taxi driver and that bakery worker that she was tres joli, feeling in her heart that she was expressing her pure joy in living in such a delightful place, when in reality she was telling everyone she met how pretty she was.  It was some weeks before she learned that truth.  Then there was another episode when she was out in her neighborhood on a stormy night, looking for their newly adopted kitten.  As she wandered about in her nightgown looking under shrubs and parked cars she asked the guard “Ou est le petite gateau?” Much later, when she ran that back in her head, she knew that the important noun there should have been <chat>.  She was asking the guard, “Where is my little cake?” rather than “Where is my little cat?”  It’s an important distinction.
OK, I’m getting to me.  Mine isn’t cute or dotty, like K.  I was in a busy store one afternoon at the crammed check out stand.  Perhaps it was during Ramadan.  I can’t even remember what we needed, but we had to clear up some confusion.  The check out girl just rolled her eyes at our attempts to communicate and finally, I wondered if perhaps she spoke English, sometimes people do.  I asked her, rather pointedly, “Je suis Anglais?”  I was sure I had just asked her, “Do you speak English?” but then Allan looked at me a little horrified and when I think I repeated it, he asked me to stop it.  It came around to me instantly that I was demanding of this woman, “Am I English?”  This was a question she was completely dumbfounded about answering, though her first instinct may have told her I was more American than English.  And that was my moment when it was like the room went silent as I fell in slow motion right on my face and it splatted like an overripe tomato.  I refused to speak another word of French, for that day.
Afterword:  We just returned from the hardware store where we successfully purchased 4 meters of chicken wire and some electrical adaptors.  I also, finally, updated my minutes.  Feeling a little large again.

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