Like any foreign language, French provides plenty of phrases and unlikely word pairings that seem both bizarre and hilarious to the virgin ear. One of my first run-ins with one such linguistic nugget was with the phrase "C'est moi" as a means of introducing one's self, as in "C'est moi, Elizabeth!" Or, "C'est moi, Michelle!" as a family friend energetically announced to me at dinner the other night. In English, this directly translates to "It's me, (fill in the blank)!" and in addition to being adorable, it has the delightful side-effect of making every person you come into contact with seem like someone you've been waiting your whole life to met.
Another strange verbal tendency I've recently encountered is the use of "Faire pi pi," as in "To Make" -- you've got it -- "pee pee." I overheard my French uncle say something about "Faire"-ing pee pee on the phone the other day and thought surely I'd misheard him. I immediately plugged it in to my riddle solving machine (Google Translate) where sure enough, "pee pee" came right back "pee pee." At that point I was stumped and, figuring it must be familiar slang for something else, I decided to ask my French teacher about it the next day. Luckily it only took one really embarrassed student (me) to find out that: "Eet means... you know... to go pee pee."
So as it turned out, it was slang for something else, it's just that that something else was... exactly what it sounded like. Since uncovering the mystery of pee-pee, or as I like to call it "operation pee squared," I have heard it being tossed around like a skinny girl at a Limp Bizkit concert. Everywhere I go, people will not stop talking about "Faire"-ing pi pi. Something about the innocence of this phrase makes it feel even more inappropriate to me, and unfortunately, as a French friend recently explained, the language does not really offer a simple "go pee" option. One has only to choose between the bizarrely childish "faire pi pi" or the conversely vulgar "pisser" (to "go piss"), hailing from the opposite end of the graphic spectrum.
At the same meal that began with Michelle adorably proclaiming that "It's her!" it's hard for me to imagine getting up to announce that I am going to "faire pi-pi" or for that matter, that I'm going to "take a piss." Neither of these seem like good options. Of course there's always the least specific and probably most polite "I am going to 'la toilette'" -- but what do I do if people start asking about numbers?
These are the kind of questions that keep me up at night. And don't even get me started on taking a shower ("une douche"). I've been sticking to baths in an effort to avoid the issue entirely.
When not busy making fun of French people speaking French, I'm devoting considerable energy to making fun of them speaking English. There is no question that this is entirely in an effort to make myself feel better about my own meager French skills, but that doesn't make it any less entertaining. At present there are few things that bring me more joy than listening to Parisian radio DJs go on in French about music news and upcoming concerts and then abruptly announce that they are going to play (perfect American accent): "Snoop Dogg and Dr Dre" who are going enlighten us as to why we should (perfect American accent): "Smoke weed EH-VERY day!"
But really, I have no room to make fun of them. They are too busy laughing at me. I've finally broken the conversation seal and feel much more comfortable attempting communication, the only problem is that now, my confidence might not be in sync with my abilities.
Having recently learned the word "gêné" (bothered or embarrassed), I was ready and willing to put it to use, and decided to do so while telling a story to a small group of French people at a bar. When I got to the end and was trying to explain that the whole event had made me feel embarrassed, my statement was met with looks of extreme confusion. As I later discovered, rather than "gêné" I had said "génie," and in doing so had effectively concluded my story by announcing to everyone that I was "a genius." I don't know if there's any objective way to recognize a "genius," but I would say one sure-fire way to tell that someone is not one is if they are proclaiming to a group of strangers (in a broken, mangled version of their language) that they are.
One positive that happened to come from the gêné night was that I also learned the word for full: "plein" (as in a "plein" glass, something I needed several of after said genius incident). This was a word I had been searching for and I could not wait to put it to action when I got back home to my aunt and uncle's house. My French uncle speaks English very well but there still seems to be a vague communication barrier between us, a gap which he constantly tries to bridge by piling more food on my plate. While this go-to gesture of hospitality is very sweet, at a certain point, I just don't have the room. Or, in other words (or so I thought) "Je suis pleine." After having muttered this new found vocabulary at several meals in response to his persistent offerings, I was later informed by a friend that one should "never say that you are 'pleine' - in French that expression means that you are pregnant."
My uncle is pretty old and his hearing isn't perfect, not to mention that some part of his brain seems to shut down every time I open my mouth and start speaking French, so I'm still holding out hope that he either didn't hear or didn't understand me any of the times I said this. Of course there's also the possibility that he heard me every time, and just thinks that I was choosing a really strange and inappropriate time to cry for help.
It is incidents like these that make me want to avoid other people entirely. "As long as I'm alone, I can't embarrass myself," I think. Which is what lead me to being alone in Montmartre recently, skimming the used book offerings of a small bodega. My eyes fell randomly on a book with a bold, simple cover and a straightforward title consisting entirely of words I knew. Opening to the first page, I was able to skim through several paragraphs without using a dictionary, and when the salesman told me it was only €1, I was sold. Things were going well for the first couple pages, it was written in first person, recounting lots of daily activities in present tense: "I get up, I shower, I put on pants and a sweater, I ride my bike to the park," etc. There was non-stop action, which was great for my verb practice, and lots of repetition, even better. It wasn't till page 5 or 6 that things took an unexpected turn. "I come back to my apartment" suddenly turned into "Jérémie comes over with a bottle of wine," and before I knew it, the narrator and "Jérémie" were doing lots of verbs I had never heard of before, and one iPhone dictionary search at a time I was learning all the French words for "lube" and "condom." Without realizing it, it seemed that I had accidentally purchased some sort of soft-core gay porn book.
Riding alone on the metro, with no one to hear my bad pronunciation or correct my grammar, my face flushed red.
Somehow, I had even found a way to embarrass myself in front of myself.
View photos and videos of Elizabeth's Parisian travels at http://americanwerewolfinparis.tumblr.com/