It’s very embarrassing, all of it. The paternal side of my family comes from Canada, you know. A hundred years ago, a whole tribe of large-nosed LaFlammes made the long journey south into Maine. They chain-smoked the whole way and bitched incessantly about the cold, but by God, they found their way here and got to work doing whatever it was they came here for. Maybe they were loggers and millworkers. I like to think at least a few of them were bandits, or maybe circus folk.

But the fact is the family spoke French, and when they came to the states, they learned to speak English, as well. I remember the whole lot of them at Christmastime, bouncing from one language to the other and then back again, getting louder by the ounce. Hands flying everywhere as they began off-color jokes in English and finished them in French. Very frustrating for the young boy eager to know what happened to the large-chested femme who walked into a bar with a chicken on one shoulder, a plate of tourtiere on the other.

I might have picked up French by the time I was six just so I could hear the dirty parts of the jokes, but no. My father died when I was six and there was little connection to my Canadian kin after that. What few French words I had learned were quickly forgotten and I never tried to learn again.

Which is a real pain in the fesses if your name is LaFlamme and you live in a city like Lewiston. When I introduce myself to strangers here, they make the logical assumption that I have a grasp of the language that came with the name. They will launch into rapid fire French that to me sounds like popcorn popping in an amphitheater. I try to stop them but I never learned how to say: “I don’t speak French,” or “please stop talking” or “ouch, your words are like hot popcorn in my ears.”

They look at me, the French, with great disappointment. How can I spell my name with an LA and two Ms if I have no words to pluck from my heritage? Débile!

I have no excuse, beyond the dead father thing. There is a certain arrogance about a person who travels to a foreign place without making at least a cursory attempt to speak the language used there. Journey to Spain, you will at least want to learn to say hello and goodbye, please and thank you. It wouldn’t hurt to expand your database of Spanish to include phrases that might help assuage the messes you will get yourself into. “I did not know she was your sister,” for instance. Or, “I swear, I did not know that was illegal here.”

But I am guilty of such linguistic snobbery. The newspaper sent me to Quebec last week and I did not take the time to learn even the basics of a language I should have absorbed decades ago. When a kindly older man introduced himself to me, I only sat there grinning and nodding like a simpleton. I wondered if the French have a word for “dolt.”

When a woodsman helped push our car out of a snowbank, I could not even come up with a simple expression of gratitude. I knew the word for thank you began with an M and so I began firing off anything that came to mind.

“Mon mari?”

The lumberjack raised an eyebrow.

“Ma mere?”

He was starting to look offended.

“Mignonne!” I declared and the big woodsman turned red and scowled. He brushed past me, picked up the car and put it back in the snowbank.

No. It is only a bon mot. I was spared such an indignity because I was traveling this day with the lovely and talented photographer, Amber Waterman. Amber is a blonde from Iowa and so naturally, she speaks French.

“Pardonnez-moi, monsieur,” Amber said, before the big man hurled me into the forest. “Mon ami est un idiot.”

I think it means: “Though my reporter friend is very good looking, he does not speak your language.”

The point is, it was embarrassing to be in a famously French speaking province without even the basic tools to carry on simple discourse. Embarrassing and shameful, really, since I had been sent up here to speak with people.

My wife speaks admirable French and she has tried in the past to teach me key phrases that might become useful to me someday. Unfortunately, all I ever remember are words and phrases that struck me as hilarious. Who wants to learn how to say: “Could you please call an ambulance? I have stabbed myself with a fork again,” when you can go around barking: “Crotte de nez!” over and over at the most inappropriate time and place?

Who wants to learn how to inquire about hotel rates when you can turn an insipid line such as “eat one hand and save the other for later” into a very dramatic sounding French phrase?

Though it seemed the height of wit at the time, in hindsight I am remorseful. Many of my friends and all of that estranged half of my family are French. By failing to learn the language, I dishonor them. I’d apologize in their native tongue, if I weren’t afraid of mangling it and causing offense and possibly an international crisis.

My tail was saved in Quebec by a 20-something blond girl from Iowa. How do you like that? Without her, I would have returned to the newsroom with an empty notebook and no real defense to put up before frowning editors. “Crotte de nez!” I would have offered before the lashing commenced.

So it is my intention to learn some of the language that was lost to me when I was a petit garon (you have to admit that my efforts in this short column already are very annoying). It seems not only a useful thing to know, but a courtesy to my many French speaking friends and neighbors.

Besides, I can’t take Amber everywhere I go. Even if she was super helpful at the border when she told the officer: “Veuillez mettre cet homme dans la prison pendant longtemps.”

I’m pretty sure it means: “My traveling companion is very intelligent and sexy.”

Mark LaFlamme is a staff writer for the Sun Journal.



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