Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Fractured French

When I was in my late 30's I decided that I wanted to learn French.  I bought (and used) tapes, CDs, DVDs, and even a couple of college courses but never got to the point where I could understand a native French person speaking at normal conversational speed.  I can read menus and ask simple questions but that's about it.  My sister Sue also took several French classes, with much the same results.

Several years later Sue and I went on a river cruise through (mostly) Provence.  The boat was small but comfortable with an English-speaking international crew, gourmet food, and wonderful local wines.  We passed wild horses, fighting bulls, and the bridge at Avignon.  We saw mussels and lavender being raised.  We stood on the spot in Arles where Van Gogh painted "Starry Night."  We tasted Chateauneuf du Pape in its native terroir.  We enjoyed the boat, the history-haunted country we traveled through, and our fellow travelers.  One of them, a witty guy about our age named Dave, let us use his camera battery charger and in return pumped us for French vocabulary.

One day as we cruised along, we saw a ramshackle home on the bank; it looked as if a gypsy wagon had exploded in the front yard.  Dave studied it, turned to me, and asked, "What's the French phrase for 'white trash'?" Of course I didn't know, but I told him that the French word for a garbage can is "poubelle" (pronounced poo-bell).  He verified with the captain that poubelle is the word for trash, and for the rest of the trip described anything tacky as "poubelle blanche."

I hadn't thought about that phrase for years.  Last night, though, since I was early for our book club meeting, I killed the extra time by wandering around one of the most upscale malls in Phoenix, where I felt distinctly under-dressed.  While getting ready I had aimed for "neat and clean" rather than "affluent," and as I walked past an expensive restaurant the sentence "I hope I don't look too poubelle blanche" wandered through my brain.  Why?  I have no idea, but I was glad to be reminded of one of my best vacations ever.

“To enjoy life, we must touch much of it lightly” ~Voltaire

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