Speaking Up in Paris

by Phyllis Kriegel

In the late 40’s a redoubtable college professor introduced me to the mysteries of French grammar.  I memorized verb forms, studied vocabulary lists, imbibing idioms calculated to spark conversations.

During the 50’s, in reading groups and conversation circles, lycee graduates brushed up my accent and fine-tuned linguistic subtleties.  Along the way I absorbed nuggets of French culture, bits of history.

But the path to passable French was strewn with dangers: cognates that look similar but have different meanings turn out to be false friends. They can betray you in a twinkling.  Baiser as a noun means a kiss, but baiser as a verb means to fuck.  Better safe than mortified: use embrasser and avoid a grosse gaffe.

In the early 60s, aided by a trusty Baedeker, I planned my virgin siege of Paris. To the barricades… bring on the monuments…the chic cafés and venerable brasseries. Allons-y !

In my fantasy life I yearned to be welcomed by the French, to present a mix of charm and wit, a certain je ne sais quoi and l’esprit galore.  Perhaps even have a romantic fling.  But what if I made a faux pas or flubbed le mot juste.

Maybe a well- rehearsed monologue delivered with a smile and sneaking in a snippet of the subjunctive would disarm, pass muster, even at the  French Academy.  This is my first trip to Paris, the most beautiful city in the world. I am thrilled to be here.  I have studied French so that I might chat with tout le monde.

My carefully crafted set-piece apparently worked.  Taciturn taxi drivers, blasé hotel clerks, surly waiters in cafes and snooty barmen at the Ritz responded warmly. The dour woman who ran the beauty salon even offered a smile with a gracious bonjour.

There I was, feeling newly soignée with a trendy haircut and secure in scarf-tying skills. Meanwhile, I longed for the sexy underwear that only the French can dream up.

Chatting with all comers like a wind-up doll, I reveled in the sounds and sights of The City of Light. In street markets and elegant gardens I sauntered, affecting the guise of a disinterested bystander.  But now, as I caught the full measure of seductive scenes overheard, je tout compris!

Diffidence be damned.  If the proper moment should happen, I might even attempt baiser.


I persist in believing that stories happen to people who can tell them.