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.
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?”