Monday, March 17, 2008


We are six or seven months into a relationship, Violette and I, and coming along nicely. She comes to clean the house and do the ironing mostly every week, and drops in occasionally besides. These drop ins are generally for the purpose of comparing schedules, but they are also occasions for visiting.

Visiting is a challenge for us. Violette speaks without moving her lips. If she were American, she would be the cashier at the Harris Teeter who grew up about thirty feet from the parking lot and once went to Rock City on vacation, the one who says, Do you have your VIC card with you honey? and you look at her and try to make just one of those words sound like English. That's how Violette speaks, except in French.

Our conversations involve a lot of false starts and pantomime. I'm sure that my French is just as bizarre to her as her French is to me; bizarre, and, I suspect, slightly pathetic. After all, here I am, a grown woman with children and dogs and a houseful of furniture and a husband--whose name, incidentally, she thinks is Gory, and who am I to disabuse her of that?--but I am unable to carry on an ordinary conversation with her. She is constantly having to repeat the simplest things to me, like, Where are the coat hangers? (I think I have just about got that arrangement of sounds down. I still can't split it up into discrete words, but when Violette is ironing shirts and turns to me and speaks, I know to go get some coat hangers.) When we have had a conversation that has been particularly full of blind alleys, Violette often will reassure me. French is the most difficult language to learn. You have to be patient, she will say.

Meanwhile, despite what she may think, I understand more than I used to. I managed to translate a cake recipe into French for her last week. I had baked her a real American pound cake for Christmas, and her family liked it so much that she asked for the recipe. So I went upstairs and sorted out the difference between mélanger and battre, looked up the metric equivalencies for sticks of butter, and wrote it all out. Violette looked it over and nodded. I'll take this home and put it into good French for you, so that you will have it. I thanked her; she was clearly doing me a favor. To her it must be evident that I would want all my recipes translated into French; after all, what use is English?

Violette came to clean while we were away skiing, and she left me a note. I read it over quickly--more bags for the vacuum cleaner, please, and we were out of Ajax, and let her know when to come again--and then read it again, more slowly. She had misconjugated two verbs, giving them endings that did not match their subjects, and misspelled a word or two besides. But at the end she had written: Dis-moi quand tu veux que je vienne. Tell me when you want me to come. An easy, straightforward sentence, you may think. But it was in the subjunctive. My entire relationship to the French language is based on strategies for avoiding the subjunctive mood. Here's the difference, then, between learned language and a mother tongue: with all my years of study, I can spell and conjugate till the cows come home, but any mood other than the indicative gives me a headache. Violette, with a high school education at best, can neither spell her native language nor conjugate its verbs correctly, but the subjunctive rolls off the end of her pen without a moment's hesitation.

Just before she left with the cake recipe last week, Violette noticed that we had begun working on a large puzzle with 1000 tiny pieces. She walked over and gazed down at it on the table. You know, she said, tapping the table and speaking slowly so that I could understand her, when you do a puzzle, you should put the edges and the corners together first. Because if someone can't manage the French subjunctive, there's really no telling what else they haven't figured out.

No comments:

Post a Comment