Bad jokes

19 Jan

You know when someone makes a joke or some sort of comparison that’s just not funny or even relevant? Happens everywhere in any language I would assume. The discomfort as a speaker of French as a second language is that I can’t retort the way I would like to. Instead, I’m left stumped, saying nothing, or using words in a nonsensical order so that I sound like someone fumbling around for some way to ask for something. It’s too easy to make mistakes in your second language when you’re slightly shocked or riled up. It’s the not so fabulous destiny of a handful of conversations I’ve (tried to) had here.

So there I am with some people. We’re talking about culture, how I like it here, how they view the Americans, stuff like that. It’s all normal and good and anticipated. I can almost quote the conversation before it happens. Undoubtedly we will hit upon some comment about how I’m not like ‘the rest’ (because I’m here and I speak French. Mind you, I am the last of many of my friends to speak a second language)  Then something about the ‘speed’ in the States (can’t really deny that when I’m in the land of never rush a thing, but I’ve yet to argue it’s about efficiency), how the shopping is great over there, and then onto the inevitable discussion of food. I find myself defending the number of people in the US who want better food for less money, how there are a lot of people studying to become farmers now, how not everybody in fact eats McDonald’s every day, if even at all. How it’s a very big country and that one view of that country simply cannot suffice. How of course we have cheese that isn’t orange processed cheese food. Which, not for nothing, I grew up on, and I can attest to seeing a rainbow of options of that exact sort of cheese food in the supermarché here in Guadeloupe.

So the food thing usually lasts if we don’t get stuck on why we elected Bush, and I mean people really get stuck on how an entire country – or at least enough of it – decided on the Decider. Twice. So, food. We talk about quality and quantity. We talk about traditional American and French food. I say I find French food delicious if not heavy for my liking, not being huge on meat or deli or heavy cream, and they talk about how difficult it is to find a real espresso in the States, real cheese, decent wine, and a real, sit down, take your time attitude towards a meal. They sort of have me there, except for the wine and the cheese. Hello, California? Ever heard of that little state, gets quite a bit of tourism, and I might mention makes damn fine wine and cheese. Hmph. So my French vocabulary surrounding cheese and wine and food might be up to par. What I was not prepared for was the little tiny remark that was just coming around the corner.

As mentioned, we discuss quantity. Now, in general it is true that Americans have a different culture of eating. I would say that we stick to the three meals a day thing. I would say that the French do it slightly differently. Eggs, bacon, toast, coffee and juice at 7am is horrifying to most French I’ve met. They simply cannot imagine this as petit-dejeuner.  As for dinner, lunch, the meals are longer, more drawn out. (not including work lunches, that’s going the way of the Americans I’ve been told) There is a drink with snacks. There are appetizers, which are not the same as snacks. There are a few small plates, then the main dish (also small), and then something like cheese perhaps with fruit, bread, then something sweet, and of course, coffees. It’s quite elaborate. And the quantity overall is still perhaps less than a plate at the Cheesecake Factory. It’s true. In discussing this, one woman said to me, “I was with some American friends who asked me how I stayed this size, and I showed them their plates, I said, ‘I don’t eat like that. You have to eat less'” Then she said:

“I told them, you see the people in Aushwitz? There were no fat people in Aushwitz. Think about it. There’s a reason for that.”

Mmhmm. I’m just gonna let that one sink in. Theeereyago….let out your breath and let your eyebrows come back from the top of your head. I still haven’t found mine. I was stupefied.  Seriously? Did you really just make some ….sort of….comparison ….not being fat….concentration camp….if I were to be…so then….oooh right I totally see what you’re saying, ignoramus.   So here I was, in one of those moments where I just needed some clever concise (ok I’m nothing like concise but whatever I can work on it) whippersnapper of a sentence to roll off of my skinny tongue (and I wasn’t even there, imagine?) and you know, I just couldn’t even come up with anything in French that would have been cutting yet classy enough. I’m working on not just giving my standard middle finger stress response, you see. Perhaps I should have made an exception?

So, helpless when stressed, that’s me. At least in French. It’s motivated me to start working on my vocabulary. Perhaps I will simply prepare standard responses to all sorts of possible infringements. That could work. I’ll start on that today….


2 Responses to “Bad jokes”

  1. Jennifer E January 23, 2012 at 18:02 #

    i love this blog!! I have no idea how I would have responded to her cold comment in another language. I accept that I am only able to be somewhat funny in one language. Applause to you for trying to be clever in multiple languages!!

    I’d like to say I was enjoying great California wine, cheese and relaxing while reading this blog, but I’m at work. The other thing Americans do too often. 🙂

  2. Allen January 20, 2012 at 12:11 #

    Oh, I feel for you! Great empathy again, because I too suffer from this syndrome/affliction. Isn’t it frustrating? But, I have learned to take a few deep daiphragmatic breaths, and ‘zen’ myself. Most often, you know, a calm silence speaks oceans in response! (And while demonstrating your ‘zen’ keep eye contact.)

    But oh how I wish I had the skill to deal with those situations when you just ‘know’ that you are being taken advantage of because you are ‘etranger’!

    Actually, I’m even worse when I’m in a situation where I am nervous – like with a doctor when I’m unwell, and then all my French seems to go out the window! (Mind you, there are moments when I can’t think of the English word, anyway! It’s my age!)

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