I only parlez-français when it comes to champignons.

2 Nov

Our Learning Services team supports our offices around the world. I tell you this to explain why I was dialing Paris at 10am.

I thought I was calling someone who expected my call. We had a meeting invitation on our calendars, and I’d checked our corporate directory to ensure I had her direct line. But somehow, between trying to remember the international exchange code and entering her number, I managed to enter the general office number.

So I was surprised when she answered with a flowing sentence of French, beginning with the only word I understood: Bonjour. I responded with a Bonjour of my own, before switching to English in a “let’s drop this joke” kind of tone and said, “Hey! It’s Alison. Are you ready for me?”

Silence on the other end. Then, “Bonjour? Repetez, s’il vous plait…”

Which is when I realized it was NOT the person I was trying to reach. So, digging deep into my dusty mental reference drawer, I called upon the French I’d learned eight years ago when I briefly lived in France.

I strung together a sentence which – roughly translated – was intended to communicate the following: “Hi. My apologies. I speak little French. I am American. I am searching for Perrine. Is she there?”

The woman on the other end exclaimed like she finally understood me; then I was put on hold. After a brief delay, another woman answered. “Bonjour?”

Cautiously, I answered. “Perrine?”

Apparently not, because her response was a long sentence which left me stumped.

In my defense, even at the height of my French comprehension, I heavily relied on visual cues. The phone was always my enemy. Taking a deep breath, I had flashbacks of two other French phone calls from my past.

The first was when I managed to land a yeast infection shortly after arriving in France, before I could figure out the pharmacy or medical system to get some kind of over-the-counter treatment. (In retrospect: duh.)

Because I didn’t have an international cell phone and was staying in an apartment without a landline, I found myself standing in a phone booth, paging through a French-English dictionary, while simultaneously explaining to SAMU (the medical equivalent of 911) that I had mushrooms between my inner-thighs.

Not me! It's this awesome photographer: ashliej.tumblr.com

It was slightly horrifying, but also strangely freeing. I mean, once you’ve had THIS conversation, what else can you possibly utter that will be worse? Not much. I still have moments when I want to trot out this phrase as a kind of shorthand for calls where people aren’t understanding each other, or where you have to get so literal you sound like a moron.

Needless to say, after that call, I was ready to melt my phone card. Alas, that wouldn’t have done me any good, because my next apartment did have a land line. And THIS is what happened during that phone call. (Oink, oink!)

These two incidents trotted through my mind like Scooby Doo flashbacks, wavy lines and all. I must’ve spaced out, because when I tuned back in for this morning’s scheduled call, the woman on the phone was saying – in very slow English – “You are zee American? Looking for Perrine?”

Um, yes. And with her perfect English, she connected me.

The irony? When I hung up the call, one of my DC teammates came to my desk. “Dude!” he exclaimed. “That was seriously badass!”

I looked at him blankly.

He continued, “I had no idea you could speak French!”

I shook my head. “Not really.”

He nodded, all fired up. “C’mon! Say something else – it sounds cool.”

And so with a deep breath, before starting, I had to ask: “Are you familiar with mushrooms?”

13 Responses to “I only parlez-français when it comes to champignons.”

  1. thesinglecell November 2, 2011 at 11:08 pm #

    Bbbbbbaaaahahahahahahaha! The part about the Frenchy yeast infection alone was worth the visit today. Oh, that’s priceless. My most urgent sentence during my brief stay in Paris a few years ago was, “S’il-vous plait… avez-vous cette taille?” while holding out a dead camera battery at the foto store. The way you played this out is brilliant. Also, I’m totally jealous that your job lets you globe-trot by phone, when not by air. Please tell me you really DID dazzle your coworker with your knowledge of fungal French.

  2. Tin Roof Press November 3, 2011 at 5:32 am #

    zat was so funneee!

  3. John November 3, 2011 at 6:56 am #

    Thanks for the morning laugh!

    “These two incidents trotted through my mind like Scooby Doo flashbacks, wavy lines and all” is perfect!

  4. Hoyt November 3, 2011 at 8:17 am #

    When visiting Paris during a summer abroad, I thought I was very cool using my limited French. Got me through the whole weekend, until the last day when I walked into a sandwich shop and ordered “poulet avec pomme frites” (which, I must admit, is what the menu said). The counter guy looked at me with a look of such contempt that it still fries my eye balls and said “Chicken and fries?”

    • pithypants November 9, 2011 at 5:00 pm #

      Wait. Isn’t that what they were selling? Or is my French still so crappy I’m confused?

  5. Byron MacLymont November 3, 2011 at 8:35 am #

    Two years of college French, some time spent in Paris, and all I can think of come clutch time is phrases from high school French 1. “Uh… where is the library? I need to return the book of my uncle.”

    • pithypants November 3, 2011 at 8:37 am #

      Sadly, I translated that sentence as I read it. “J’ai besoin de retourner le livre de mon oncle.” Why can’t my business conversations be that easy? Why don’t more people I work with ask me about pencils, windows or furniture?

  6. Lorna's Voice November 3, 2011 at 4:56 pm #

    Great story! There are enough opportunities to miscommunicate in our own language, let alone cross-pollinate with another language. I’ve tried and can’t learn other languages, but I can mater accents like nobody’s business. What’s up with that? 😉

  7. Alicia November 4, 2011 at 10:27 am #

    Nice! Tho I have to say, you’re selling yourself short. You hauled my hiney all over Paris for 5 days conducting all kinds of conversations — and never once mentioning mushrooms — and being received warmly and with full comprehension by the locals.

  8. skippingstones November 5, 2011 at 10:44 am #

    It’s fun to read your blog! I never have this much excitement in my life…but that’s okay. I’m thinking it’s less stressful and much funnier to read about it :).

    • pithypants November 9, 2011 at 4:59 pm #

      Oh, it rarely feels exciting at the time. It’s only in retrospect that I am able to view it that way…

  9. An Observant Mind November 6, 2011 at 7:28 am #

    This was great, so funny – I LOVE the mushrooms between your legs lol. Had me in stitches – not so great for you of course! Great post!


  1. I did that. Did I do that? « pithypants - November 22, 2011

    […] I would go so far as to say we’re oenophiles, but then I’d have to pronounce it. And as I’ve stated before, I’m not so hot when it comes to zee […]

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