A few years ago, a photographer and I were sent to the Canadian border to explore the matter of border security.
It was a sweet assignment, mostly – who doesn’t enjoy a four or five hour road trip with leisurely stops along the way and nary an editor in sight?
When we got over to the Canadian side, though, things got tricky. The very first local businessman we approached greeted us with a lengthy chunk of fast and furious French that sounded like absolutely nothing to me.
I stood there blinking at the man, my reporter’s notebook limp in my hand. Had the fellow just warmly welcomed us to Canada? Or was he saying vile things about my mother?
In the midst of my befuddlement, the photographer — a blond lass from Iowa — rattled off a long string of sexy-sounding French, all guttural where it was supposed to be guttural and nasal in all the right places.
When she was done, she and the business owner both laughed heartily before continuing their discourse.
It was a moment of tremendous shame for me. Here I was, a guy named LaFlamme — whose descendants had come directly from Quebec just a few generations earlier — who was nevertheless utterly deaf to the French tongue.
Not to mention the fact that the French stranger and the blond girl from Iowa were now both saying horrible things about my mother.
For the remainder of that trip, I was pretty much useless. I’d stand there like a simpleton while the photographer quizzed the locals about their thoughts on border security. My notebook might as well have been a coloring book, my pen a blunt crayon.
In my years of existing with the penultimate Franco name, the only words and phrases I had learned were utterly useless in an adult conversation — I have yet to find myself in a situation where the ability to say “booger” in French is helpful, although Lord, do I enjoy saying it.
So, fresh from my humiliation at Municipalité de Saint-Augustin-de-Woburn, I endeavored to learn the language I had stopped studying when I was 6 years old.
I downloaded an online guide and began to follow its instructions. I learned basic French phrases and practiced them out loud. I began approaching French-speaking relatives — and a few bewildered strangers in grocery stores — so that I could unleash a torrent of freshly learned French upon their ears.
At which point those relatives and wary strangers would look at me as though I had recently suffered a massive head injury.
My problem is that no matter what French word or phrase I’m trying to utter, my tongue insists on delivering it phonetically.
S’il vous plaît, you say?
“Sill voose plate,” says my stupid tongue.
Bonsoir, mon cheri?
That becomes “Bone Sawyer, moan Sherry.”
Counting to 10 in French — something a lot of local four year olds can do — from my mouth sounds like Dr. Seuss on acid: “Oon, dukes, troys, quarter…” at which point most people just back away slowly and call the authorities.
Last week, I journeyed back to Quebec, where my progenitor had launched the LaFlamme name 350 years prior by lighting a bunch of fires on the I’Île d’Orléans. True story, yo.
In Quebec, it was the same old thing. I couldn’t understand the motel clerk. I couldn’t read business signs so I had no idea if I was walking into a restaurant or a muffler shop. I couldn’t order the chicken nugget meal even while referring to only the menu number.
“Dukes?” the food worker said. “What the hell is Dukes?”
That’s probably what he said. I can’t know for sure because, duh. He said it in French.
Ma femme (you don’t want to know how I pronounce that) knows enough of the language to keep me from starving to death in the street, but for me, the inability to speak a language I should have learned as a child brought about that old sense of shame, which really inhibited my ability to enjoy the poutine (which I tend to pronounce “poo teen”).
I mangle the inflections, I don’t get the concept of gendered nouns or understand how to express adjectives in either masculine or feminine form — if I were to get the gender wrong when ordering chicken at a restaurant or muffler shop, exactly what are the consequences?
I feel as though at every turn, I’m on the brink of causing an international incident and bringing shame down on my family name (again) for generations to come.
Humbled once by a young lady from Iowa and now by a chicken sandwich, I’ve endeavored once more to learn French, if only to master enough common phrases to get me by during my next trip north of the border. You know, things like: “Hey, give me my wallet back,” and, “Help me, my wife locked me out of the motel room again.”
Also, I’d like to know how to fluently complain about the fact that there were way, WAY too many shops in Quebec City and not nearly enough bars. Limited as I am in the French vocabulary, I had to articulate my unhappiness over this imbalance by crying “booger!” every time we came upon yet another scarf and handbag store where there should have been a pub.
Although, now that I think of it, that word rather expresses my feelings on the matter pretty well.
Mark LaFlamme is a Sun Journal staff writer. If there’s another language you’d like to hear him master — or mangle — email him at [email protected]