Monday, August 13, 2012

Hey Ladies, Look at My Spinach

Mademoiselle MacGill was not a master teacher (they didn’t have such swanky designations in my weary, failing high school), but I’ve just discovered that the lessons she taught back in Ritenour High School certainly seem to have stuck.

In the creepy old attic that is my brain, high school French was buried under several layers of dusty show tunes, to-do lists and towering stacks of worry. Yet, when our exchange student, Hugo, arrived from Paris on Friday night, the old French reappeared – a bit worse for wear, but still vaguely useful.

It appears that, between watching countless episodes of “Love, American Style,” I seem to have spent the majority of my study time on French nouns, because they are the only parts of speech I recall with any accuracy. Poor Hugo looks more alarmed than reassured when I blurt out a word that’s just come to me, delivered in a rusty accent that’s been made even less comprehensible by that Minnesota lilt I’ve picked up over the years. But hey, we talked about the “bateau” that would be at the cabin, and I made repeated references to Betty the “chat,” feeling mighty worldly as I did.

As we groped for ways to amuse this sweet, jet-lagged and obviously gobsmacked kid, we took Hugo to the farmer’s market. He wants to be a chef, and I thought that food might be a universal language, which it pretty much proved to be. But how in the world did I remember that an eggplant was an “aubergine?” That, I’m afraid, is a mystery for the ages, but of course the credit goes to Mademoiselle MacGill.

By the end of our visit to the market, I’d even found that I remembered two entire sentences related to food: Allons, mesdames, voyez mes epinards ("Hey ladies, look at my spinach," from the “At the Market” chapter in our textbook) and Vous n'êtes pas un homme, vous et en champignon ("You aren’t a man, you’re a mushroom," from Le Petit Prince by Antoine De Saint-Exupery.)

If my French was awful, it turned out to be significantly better than my mime skills, which I starting putting to use whenever one of those dusty nouns could not be pulled into service.  On Saturday afternoon, we had our usual family emergency, the sort that’s delivered fresh and hot several times daily in these parts, and I had to mime my way out of it. 

Mary Katherine bolted into the garden, where I was supposed to be weeding and where, in fact, I was doing what they used to call “woolgathering,” intoxicated by the crisp weather and the scent of the basil plants.  “Dad is missing,” she announced dramatically, “and we have to leave for the theater RIGHT NOW.” We tried a few vigorous shouts, but he seemed to be hiding, abducted, or lying in an exhausted heap somewhere. Then someone noticed that the dog’s leash, and – here’s where the real detective work comes into play – the dog itself, was missing, and a theory was formed as to the parental unit's current whereabouts.

Mary Katherine could not wait, so I pulled off my gardening gloves and prepared to drive to a location near the giant Jesus Wall off 35W, one of my favorite locations in the city, because I get to say “Jesus Wall” when I go there. She told me that she’d bought a ticket to the play for Hugo, too, so I tried to tell him that he was leaving, like NOW, as she was putting it. Too lazy to look in the French-English dictionary we’d been using, I decided to act out what was going to happen next. “You are leaving with me,” I said, with lots of mutual chest-pointing.

“You will go to a plaaaaaayyyy,” I added, very slowly and loudly, which is the surefire American treatment for communicating with foreign-like-talkers of all stripes. I added what seemed like a true touch of genius at this point, and enacted what I thought was a perfect approximation of a person taking a seat in the theater (I was doing so well, I thought, that Hugo could probably tell that the seats were red velvet), and then I tried a sweeping hand gesture to indicate my joy at the show that was unfolding before me.

Hugo, who is nothing if not incredibly polite, nodded in what might have passed for comprehension and headed off to get his sweater. It was only when I got to the car and started to tell Mary Katherine of my great breakthrough in Franco-American communication, that I began to see my recent performance in a new light. Viewed another way, by, say, a sane person, my indication of taking a plush red theater seat might have looked vaguely intestinal, and my sweeping indication of the action on stage might have looked like something requiring Windex. I began to feel that perhaps Hugo had gotten the idea that I was telling him I urgently needed to wash windows, while sitting on the toilet. 

I began to laugh, very hard, at my own stupidity, which is such a wonderfully freeing activity that I do it several times a day. Mary Katherine became suspicious, asking, “WHAT did you say to him?”

“Oh honey,” I said, as I wiped my eyes, “at least I didn’t ask him to look at my spinach.” 

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