The Common Good
July-August 1997

Les French

by Ed Spivey Jr. | July-August 1997

'Hrumphs

'Hrumphs

Les French
By Ed Spivey

Editors’ Note: Despite the vital importance of golf to the national debate, the following article contains no reference to Tiger Woods. We apologize for this omission, but a much more important topic demands the attention of our troubled nation: French kids.

When we sent our oldest daughter to France last year in an exchange program we got excited about what we might get, you know, in exchange: perhaps some good cheese, or fine wine, or maybe one of those really ugly French luxury cars (the ones that look like giant slugs, only less stylish).

But what appeared on our doorstep this summer was none of these things. It was a French kid. A French teen-ager, to be precise, who expected to live with us for the same amount of time that our daughter spent with her. (Apparently she didn’t understand that giving is much better than receiving.)

But who could blame a foreign-type person for wanting to visit the most powerful, most advanced nation in the world? In fact, she spent much of the first day wide-eyed and speechless, at least until I stopped driving on the sidewalk. (I was in a hurry, and I was careful.) Coincidentally, one of her first cultural lessons was the unique way American drivers interpret traffic lights. I patiently explained that in our country green means "go," yellow means "also go," and red means that drivers curse loudly to themselves: "Dag! I’d better hurry through this intersection because some other cars will probably be coming from the other direction!"

Knowing that the first few hours with a new family and a different language could be uncomfortable, we tried to set our guest at ease by asking questions that any typical 13-year-old could answer: Who is your favorite rock singer? What kinds of foods do you like? Why does your government sell weapons of mass destruction to Iran?

I personally enjoyed interacting with this child, and took it upon myself to acquaint her with the privileges and perks our family enjoys in this, the richest nation on Earth. She was impressed when I told her that we generally spend vacations camping near a beach. She sadly replied that back home her family never camped, but was instead forced to spend summers at their ocean-front house. In Cannes.

When she mentioned that her favorite pastime is skiing, I quickly bragged about the nearby hills of Pennsylvania where the best of manufactured snow provides hours of picturesque, slightly downhill fun.

Again, a clearly disappointed child lamented that she had never skied on human-made snow, since her family lives about an hour from the Alps. They get a lot of real snow there.

But what most set our guest at ease was my own fluency in French, since I took the language in college. (In fact, I can still remember how to use raison d’etre in a sentence: Non, non! Je ne desire pas les raisins avec mon d’etre. Translation: No, thank you. I don’t want raisins with my d’etre. Almonds, maybe. But definitely not raisins.)

I never hesitated to use my French whenever I thought it would be helpful to the child: "Would you like to be toast this morning?" I asked her one day. And later: "Tonight for dinner I have made the delicious shoes and Wednesdays."

And I’m sure she was grateful before a long car trip to be reminded to "go through the bathroom."

Like any lover of language, I also added to my French vocabulary whenever I could. After a day of shopping, our guest was showing me some of her souvenirs and I excitedly blurted out, "Hey, what’s the French word for ‘souvenir?"

"Souvenir."

"Oh."

Actually, we were never that concerned about the language barrier since, having spent last summer in France, our own daughter should be pretty fluent, right?

Dad, to French girl: "Don’t you just love this cheese? In America we think fromage is best served in these little flat orange squares, individually wrapped, of course, for our protection."

French kid, looking to Colleen for help with the difficult words (such as "near-cheese by-product"): "Que?"

Colleen, patiently translating: "Do yew lyke zee cheez?"

It’s comforting to know that after three weeks of language and cultural immersion in a foreign country, our daughter can now speak English with a very good French accent. (She also brought back a swell Eiffel Tower key ring that was made in China.)

The children learned a lot from our guest, who brought a new level of politeness and decorum to the dinner table. It was refreshing, for example, to hear a child say a simple "no, thank you" when offered food, instead of the more traditional American reply, where the child shakes her head violently, clutches her stomach, and makes loud retching noises in the direction of the floor.

But the most important lesson we learned from our young ward was how to eat salad. Apparently, the French are taught at an early age to use a knife and fork in meticulous coordination. With salad this means carefully pushing every side of a leaf of lettuce onto the fork until what you’re putting in your mouth is this neat little vegetable packet. No mess at all. In my house we simply fork up a piece of lettuce roughly the size of a newspaper page and shovel it in, temporarily obscuring our entire heads in the process. This makes French people laugh, we found out.

They also stare disapprovingly when Americans talk with their mouths full. I didn’t realize we did that until I happened to glance over at a disgusted French child watching me using spaghetti as a second language:

Dad: "Did you minmflughtoktch?"

Daughter #1: "Mmphlogathinch."

Daughter #2: "Naglollgunch?"

Dad: "Ha ha ha ha!" [Burp.]

But despite these fundamental cultural differences, we learned that people of all nationalities can get along. In fact, our young guest invited our whole family to visit her in France. She said we have to eat on the porch.

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