I See France

The Dinner Guests

A few days ago Tabitha invited her French teacher from the famed Alliance Française and the teacher’s new boyfriend to dinner. Amazingly, they accepted. Neither spoke English, so it promised to be an adventure. Last night they came.

A monoglot American preparing for French guests who don’t speak English is a bit like a journalist preparing to interview an important politician. Not only must you dream up a bunch of putatively intelligent questions, but you must anticipate the answers, so that you are always there with the follow-up. For an hour before the guests’ arrival I practiced my lines—questions and amusing anecdotes that fell trippingly off my tongue in French. Then a handsome young couple rang the doorbell, smiled, and said hello. Pleasantries were exchanged, smoothly. I sat them down, took their coats, and swapped their flowers for drinks. And then … silence! We were as mute as islanders staring at Capt. Cook.

Panicked, I made a stab at conversation. Where, I asked in moron French, had they grown up? They looked at each other, mildly amused.

“Damn!” said Jennifer, our American jeune fille au pair. “That was going to be my question.” (I wasn’t the only one memorizing my lines.) Our guests happily entered the spirit of my question (“we’re all speaking French here!”) but, upon exiting, found my wife waiting for them with another.

“How,” Tabitha asked, “did you two meet?”

Our guests’ amusement turned to puzzlement. Really, this was quite forward of us. I mean, we’d only just met, and here they were being asked to reveal the intimate details of their new relationship. Still, they did their best to answer her, and move on to more natural social discourse. Alas, Jennifer lay waiting.

“So, you are now in love?” she asked. At which point they both turned scarlet. It was shaping up to be a long evening.

And then, suddenly, it wasn’t. As the first bottle of wine gave way to the second, the conversation began to flow. It turns out that it is easier to make small talk with perfect strangers in bad French than it is in good English. Everyone had an excuse for not knowing what to say next; as a result, the pressure goes out of it, and everyone has something to say. After a while we stopped translating our thoughts into French and simply spoke English with a French accent. It’s amazing how quickly you can get to the end of a French sentence if you cease to be fastidious about using French words, and simply Frenchify a few English ones. Lacking the French synonym for “usually” Tabitha didn’t skip a beat. “Usualment,” she said, which I thought was fantastic. Another time, trying to describe herself pointing at something, she said, “je pointed.”

She must have caught me laughing once too often. After the French people left, she turned to me and said, “If you’re just going to make fun of me, I’m not going to even try.” And then, “How’s therapy going?”