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The joy of learning French

We just bought a house in France. I’m speechless. Not the goose-pimply speechless you get when the Eiffel Tower twinkles. Literally speechless. I can’t say words comprehensible to the French. So I don’t talk. Better for US-Franco relations, I reckon.

It turns out that moving to the most beautiful place on earth has a downside. We’re in the exquisite Dordogne Valley east of Bergerac. We plan to spend six months of every year here, the most our passports allow. But if I can’t pick up the language, I might just as well live on Mars. At least I’d breathe easier; no communication angst.

For more than two years, we’ve pursued our dream of a second home in France’s Perigord. We prepared by taking adult school French courses at night. I learned lots of words. But now, j’oublie. That means I forget. Or it could be the name of a crisp St. Emilion white. I know as much about wine as I do about the French language.

The subject today is language, at least as it’s practiced in Gaul. Problem is, I don’t practice the language…I butcher it. I told Guillame, our banker in Sarlat, that he’s pretty. I invited our neighbor Francine chez moi so she could be the main course at dinner. I booked a Dordogne River sunset cruise at 7 a.m.

The French are tolerant. At least they don’t snort when I say Rouen (don’t try it at home, you’ll hurt yourself). But they roll their eyes like I’m a puppy with a peanut butter jar.

I’ve learned one thing after two months here: the haughty, superior Frenchman is a myth. These are nice people. But they deserve something in return: intelligible conversation. Surprisingly, they get it from most English-speaking visitors.

Thousands of Brits, and an increasing number of we Yanks, have moved to sunny Southwest France. Most speak French fluently. But a few of us still revert to pigeon-Spanish: “yo quiero uno crepo with nutello, monsieuro.” At least we’ve stopped asking for ice in our vin rose.

Globalization is a double-edged sword. It leads to diversity, but also backlash. “If you’re gonna live here, at least have the decency to learn the language.” I get that now. Friends offered good advice: “don’t pretend to be French. You aren’t. Just make an honest effort to fit in.”

No better way to fit in than by adopting the language of your adopted country. And no harder one. We’ve introduced ourselves at the mayor’s office and post office. They don’t speak English. We speak six words of French and none of them include post office. But they smile at us. I think they enjoy watching us flail.

We need permission to cut the tops of trees masking our view of the breathtakingly clean, clear Dordogne River. “Coupe l’hautes des arbes,” I say with a painful glance at the mayor’s smiling secretary. She responds with a gesture, slashing her finger across her throat. She’s either acknowledging that I want to lop off treetops, or she’s telling me don’t come back…ever.

We also want to paint our house. That, too, requires permission from La Mairie. The office provides a palette of des teintes (the word for colors, I think) that are acceptable. In addition, there’s a 15-page form to fill out… in French. I slash my finger across my own throat, indicating that would be much less painful. The secretary doesn’t smile. Jerry Lewis notwithstanding, the French don’t seem to appreciate American humor. Like Bill Murray, I’m lost in translation.

Shopkeepers try hard to understand our tortured French. So do vendors at the splendid, ubiquitous outdoor markets. They all promise us une belle prix. When I find out what that is, I’m going to buy one.

In June we return to the U.S. to avoid the Dordogne’s hot, humid summer. We’ll come back to France in October. During those months, the plan is to intensively study French. This time, I may even open the textbook.

When you’re old, retired and set in your ways, it’s hard to learn new things. But this is worth doing. We want to feel the allure of France…not just witness it. Conversing with our French neighbors – and seeing them respond – what a feeling that would be.

Mike Zampa is a media relations consultant and former newspaper editor and columnist who splits time, along with his wife, between the San Francisco Bay Area and the Dordogne Valley’s Golden Triangle.

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