The little old man from Upper Normandy was rather proud of his cigars, and he made sure to tell me just how proud he was.
I didn’t know him. I was minding my own business, eating a pain au chocolat on a bench by the seaside and thinking pensive thoughts — until he sat down next to me and started extolling the virtues of the cigar when compared to the normal cigarette.
“I can smoke this three complete times before throwing it away,” he told me. “You cigarette smokers will have five different cigarettes before I finish my one here.”
I didn’t know what to tell him, and soon after I stood up and wished him a good day.
“Ah,” he said. “You aren’t from here, are you?”
Only in France can a simple, “Good day” instantly reveal your foreign origins and prompt an awkward response in poorly pronounced and rarely used English.
For the French, language — and pronunciation — is everything. Not content to rest on their traditions of cultural and political excellence, the French feel the need to carry over their feelings of superiority into their language as well.
Now, I fully recognize that my pronunciation is far from perfect. There’s been many a time when I’ve tried to order two baguettes at the local bakery — “deux” — and almost gotten 10 — “dix.”
And yet, I’d still like to think that I speak French passably well, with an acceptable accent and a sound knowledge of the variety of language forms and verb tenses. I’ve been studying the language for more than six years, after all.
But that isn’t enough for the French. If anyone anywhere detects the slightest hint of a non-French accent in my voice, and that person happens to speak even the smallest amount of English, the conversation changes into an awkward, bilingual exchange of forced pleasantries.
One has to wonder if they realize that, accent or not, I probably speak and understand far more French than they do English. That never seems to cross their minds.
I’ve been told this kind of language switching is mostly a Parisian thing, for no one does haughty distance better than the Parisians.
And as I spend more time here, so too do I speak more in French, having perfectly lovely conversations with my fellow passengers on the metro, my neighbors, my roommates and even the man who sells me bread every day.
But just as the French are proud of their language and its intricate subtleties, so too do they nurse a peculiar hatred for it, constantly inquiring as to why I decided to learn their “useless” language.
It’s in the French relationship to their language — in between these two extremes of removed superiority and intense self-loathing — that one can find the true essence what it is to be French.
They put on a public front of incredible haughtiness and arrogance, while secretly feeling the need to make up for something indefinite they lost in the past.
In the meantime, I’ll keep trying my best to learn the language and avoid adopting the cultural chip on my shoulder.
All I want is to effectively communicate with the world around me. Is that too much to ask?
As the French say, mais oui.
Nick Andersen is a sophomore journalism and history major from Milford, Mich. Contact Nick at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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