Humor of Knowing Only a Few French Words is adapted from Me Talk Pretty One Day, a humorous book partly about struggling to learn French, by David Sedaris.
Here are excerpts from the chapter See You Again Yesterday in the book Me Talk Pretty One Day:
“I went to France knowing only the word for ‘bottleneck’.
I said ‘bottleneck’ (in French) at the airport, ‘bottleneck’ on the train to Normandy, and ‘bottleneck’ when confronted with the pile of stones that was Hugh’s house in the country.
The house is located in a tiny hamlet, a Hooterville of eight stone houses huddled in a knot and surrounded by rolling hills decorated with cows and sheep.
There was no running water, no electricity, and nothing to buy but the pipes and wires needed if you wanted to live with plumbing and electricity.
Because there was nothing decent to buy, the people greeted me with great enthusiasm.
It would be the same if a French person were to visit, say, Knightdale, North Carolina.
‘My goodness,’ everyone said (in French), ‘you came all this way to see us?’
Had my vocabulary been larger, I might have said (in French),
‘Well, no, not exactly.’
Times being what they were, I offered my only possible response.
‘Oh, bottleneck,’ everyone said. ‘You speak very well.’
They were nothing like the French people I had imagined. If anything, they were too kind, too generous.
I seemed to have reached my mid-thirties only to be known as ‘the guy who says bottleneck.’
I picked up a few new words, but the overall situation seemed hopeless.
Neighbors would drop by while Hugh was off at the hardware store, and I’d struggle to entertain them with a pathetic series of simple nouns (in French).
‘Yes,’ they’d agree. ‘That’s an ashtray all right.’
‘No, that’s okay, we’ve got our own at home.’
I’d hoped the language might come on its own, the way it comes to babies, but people don’t talk to foreigners the way they talk to babies. They don’t hypnotize you with bright objects and repeat the same words over and over, handing out little treats when you finally say ‘potty’ or ‘wawa.’
It got to the point where I’d see a baby in the bakery or grocery store and instinctively ball up my fists, jealous over how easy he had it. I wanted to lie in a French crib and start from scratch, learning the language from the ground floor up.
I wanted to be a baby, but instead, I was an adult who talked like one, a spooky man-child demanding more than his fair share of attention.
Rather than admit defeat, I decided to change goals. I told myself that I’d never really cared about learning the language. My main priority was to get the house in shape. The verbs would come in due time, but until then I needed a comfortable place to hide.
I left promising to enroll in a French class and then forgot that promise as soon as my plane landed back in New York.
Hugh and I returned to Normandy the following summer, and I resumed my identity as the village idiot.
‘SEE YOU AGAIN YESTERDAY!’ I said (in French) to the butcher.