Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Lining up

C and I picked the girls up at school on Friday afternoon, and on our way home we stopped in at the grocery store. I sent the girls next door to the boulangerie for bread while C and I studied the wine aisle, trying to figure out what to choose to take as a hostess gift to a dinner party that evening.

The girls came back into the market just as we were lining up to pay for our odds and ends. They were beaming. The boulanger wants you to come and say hello, he said for us to tell you. You'd better go.

The last time I had sent them alone into the bakery and not stopped in to speak to the baker, he had remembered it and remarked on it for an entire week. It's a small village. Not much happens at the bakery.

I left C at the caisse and went next door. The baker was talking to two clients, an older couple.

Ah, Madame Washington, bonjour. He interrupted himself midsentence. The couple looked appraisingly at me and I was pleased that I had changed out of my gardening clothes before coming out. The baker explained to them that I was American and used to live next door to George Bush. He explains that to everyone in the bakery, whenever I go in. Mais oú est votre mari?

Il est dans la queue, I responded, smiling.

M. le boulanger cocked his head to one side. The older couple cocked their heads to one side. We all looked at each other for a long moment. I had that sinking feeling that one gets when one has said something just slightly wrong. Then the light broke on the baker's face.

Ah! Il est à la caisse, Madame.

It hit me: I had said that C was in the dog's tail. In French, the word for an animal's tail, and for a line, a queue, are within one strange vowel sound of each other: une queue is a tail, and une queue is also a line. But they're pronounced differently. Not very differently to anglophone ears, perhaps, but differently enough. And a French speaker doesn't wait in the line: he makes the line, il fait la queue. That, as much as my pronunciation, was what had thrown them.

We all laughed, and the baker did his imitation of a dog wagging his tail. Then all three told me all the different ways I could say line: une file, une chaîne, à la caisse. The man in the couple, several inches shorter than I and with impressively snaggled teeth, assured me that French, she is a very difficult language to learn, and if he were in America, it would be très, très difficile for him to speak American. I shook hands and went off on my next errand, but not before the baker summoned C to visit him as well.

I went across to the traiteur for the elusive bottle of wine--we had decided to go with something Italian and exotic, defeated once again by the sheer number of choices in the grocery store wine aisle--and when I came out, Prosecco in hand, I could see mon mari deep in conversation with the baker. I went in to retrieve him--time was beginning to press; a ten minute stop was becoming a half hour excursion--and arrived just in time to hear them placing bets on the American elections. We might, depending on the outcome in November, owe each other a trip to Las Vegas, of all places. Or we might just go across to the café for a drink.

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