hile shopping at Sephora recently, I had a reminder of the lacunae which exist between the signifier and the signified. It came about during a brief exchange over moisturizers. Not seeing my old standby on the shelf, I asked the saleswoman if they had discontinued this particular cream. She said no, the product had merely been repackaged. Then she said:
“C'était comment, votre pot?”
(“What did the old jar look like
But this is what I heard:
“C'était comment votre
(“What was your skin like ?” )
To which I responded with a
detailed description of the varying tendencies of my skin to go from dry and
flaky in the winter to soft and well-moisturized according to the degree of
humidity in the summer….
She finally stopped me when she realized I was
not talking about the earlier packaging of Clarins© Crème
I consider myself fluent in French. I hold advanced
degrees in language and literature, and I’ve lived here most of my adult life.
I’ve birthed a couple of babies in French, bought three properties in French,
taught in the French university system in French, married and divorced in
French. But there was a time when my language skills were not as polished as
they are now.
In my early 20s I rented an unfurnished apartment.
I spent a good deal of time amassing furnishings for the place and was anxious
to show off the result to any and all visitors. The only thing lacking was a
bed. (I can’t recall why the most essential item one could have in an apartment
was the last thing I got around to purchasing. Where did I sleep?)
landlord came around one day to see my progress. I proudly showed him all my
“finds”. He nodded his head in approval. Acknowledging the lack of a bed, I said
“J’ai tout ce qui me faut. La seule chose qui me
manque, c’est un matelot !"
What I thought I had said :
“I have everything that I need. The only thing missing is a
But what I really said was:
“I have everything,
everything, everything that I need. The only thing I’m missing is a
He advised me to take a quick trip to the nearest naval base to
complete the apartment.
From that apartment, I moved to a
room in a Countess’s place. I was not used to being around aristocracy—even
fallen aristocracy—and her presence made me nervous. My language skills would
completely disappear whenever I had to speak with her.
One day she
relayed a message to me that I had received a phone call. It was Madame X,
inviting me to a dinner party. I tried to tell the Countess this:
suis ravie lorsque Madame X m’invite. Elle fait tellement bien la cuisine.
(I am thrilled when Madame X invites me over. She is such a good
But filtered through my anxiety, it came out like this:
“Je suis ravissante lorsque Madame X
m’invite. Elle fait tellement bien la cuisine.
(I am ravishing when Madame X
invites me over. She is such a good cook).
Yep. Anytime I get an
invitation from Madame X, I always put on full makeup and get my hair done. You
must look ravishing when going to eat a fine meal.
During my married
life, I lived in the 16th arrondissement. (Le seizième.) One Sunday my
then-husband wanted to see what time mass was held at the local church. He asked
me to call the diocese to check out mass hours: “Appelle le diocèse”. What did I
hear? “Appelle Dieu-seize”. "(Call God-sixteen".) I thought that perhaps there was
a direct line to God from the 16th arrondissement; you just had to dial 16 to
access Him. (Upon reflection, and considering the tendency towards haughtiness that pervades that arrondissement, I suspect the residents of the 16th do think they have a dedicated channel to God.)
Then there was the time I confused “aujourd’hui” (today) with
“au revoir” (goodbye). Or the time I told someone that the place they were
looking for was located on the Quai Branlé (the masturbating banks) instead of
the Quai Branly (a proper name).
I’ve embarrassed myself plenty on a
linguistic level during my time as an expat. But as I used to tell my students,
you have to check your pride at the door if you want to learn a language
well. If you aren't making mistakes---hugely embarassing mistakes--you aren't speaking enough.