Vive la France!

There’s just a certain, je ne sais quoi about the melodic sing-song nature of the  French language.


Let me rephrase that.

There’s just a certain, je ne sais quoi about the melodic sing-song nature of the  French language when spoken by someone who can actually speak the French language.

When you’re in high school and studying French as a graduation requirement, the cadence of dialogue resembles a choppy staccato more than a flowing  ballad. The words don’t exactly ebb and flow in intensity with each inflection, rolling off the tongue like butter from the croissant that students are struggling to remember the gender of as they reenact an awkward café scene in front of their overly enthusiastic French teacher.

For my high school teacher, to teach our class was to teach us about a life she was meant to be living 3,000 miles away.

Madame was convinced she was born in France and not in Michigan, and to prove that she immersed herself in the culture of a country she had visited just twice.  This love extended to not just her professional life, but also to a mullet, unshaved legs and children who could speak better French than half of Paris. 

As high schoolers, our first goal was to learn the curse words, how to ask for the bathroom and how to proposition complete strangers to sleep with us. Our second goal was to convince Madame to throw French “rendezvous” with snacks and “French” movies.


Considering her children had the complete collections of both Babar and Madeline and that she took our desire for food as a desire to experience the culture hands-on, we had an alarming number of that more resembled a two-year-old’s birthday party.

The conversation was only marginally more advanced.

We were forced to endure workbook after workbook of conjugation and verbs, describe our mood and the weather with alarming frequency and take an unnatural interest in the lives of manically happy strangers talking on videos and tapes about how where they were going in their blue car on various days of the week.

While I got to the point in my studies where I could read and understand a great deal of French, my spoken attempts remained choppy at best.

Madame, who eventually refused to speak English after two years, would speak to us as if in song. The ebb and flow in intensity with each inflection lulled me into a false sense of security that the same thing would happen when I opened my mouth and attempted to reply.

Yet when I set out to join her in a duet of dialogue, the words seemed to stick in my throat. More cacophonic than melodic, I struggled in vain to tell her that I was going to the bibliotheque on my bike on Tuesday and that I was happy about the weather.

“Viola! Can I can write it down instead?

How about another Babar party?

I’ll bring the crepes.”

At any rate, I recently ran into Madame at the store. Twelve years later she was still rocking the mullet and still refused to speak English, but we did have a brief and friendly conversation.

I believe I either told her I was fine or that I was a car.

She appeared pleased and either told me it was great to see me again or that I was still —how do you say it in English?—a pathetic monolingual loser with no rhetorical rhythm. 

Either way, je m’appelle Abby.

Ou sont les toilettes?

Click the link to watch it on YouTube.


This post was in response to this week’s RemembeRED prompt:

Write about a time that rhythm, or a lack thereof, played a role in your life. And don’t use the word “rhythm.”


35 responses to “Vive la France!

  1. Wo ist die Toilette?

    i took german.

  2. “je ne sais quoi”..pas “qua” 😉

  3. ¿dónde está el baño – I took Spanish.
    Anyway, all I remember from my French lessons is that the language sounded great but I was clueless as to what my teacher was trying to convey. How was I to ever speak it outside our classroom? Well, I once met a French guy on some train and – in French of course – he asked me if I spoke French and if I knew how to get to the airport. I answered him in as polite a manner as I could that it was the next stop and he looked at me oddly. It took a few minutes for me to realize I had spoken Spanish to the guy. Now the tables are turned as I sometimes have French people in my classroom, and they’re so eager to improve their English pronunciation. I tell them, ‘Don’t bother. It sounds great.’

  4. parallel lives, different countries

    I’ve always had a thing for Spain. Whether it’s Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises or Don Quixote (which i had to read in spanish in college) or flameco dancer, I really dont know.

    I took three years in high school, 3 in college, have traveled to Mexico 3 times, and can speak almost fluently. Yet, I’ve never traveled to Spain. Maybe when Bobina and I get these kids out of the house I’ll run wuth the bulls or write in a villa for a week.

    la bonne poste de blog aujourd’hui abby de coup manqué

    • On top of the three years in high school, I took two years in college. One of my professors was from Asia, so she spoke English was an accent so thick we couldn’t understand her anyway. Her French was beautiful and oddly, I understood that better than English. I think…

  5. I took French for a total of 6 years (2 in high school, 2 in college) and my college professor URGED me to minor in French. Minor…in…French….

    Right. Still my French name was Odette which I thought was pretty cute. And I remember how to say: Tu es tres mechant! (You are very naughty.)

    • Picking out fun French names was totally one of the perks. Everything sounds better when you say it with an accent. Tu es tres mechant!

  6. I took Spanish. Mostly we watched Antonio Banderas movies because my teacher thought he was hot.

  7. I took Spanish in high school. We sang Jon Secada songs and watched film of my teacher taking students on trips to Mexico in the 80’s (or possibly the 70’s).

    For some reason I took French in college. I could read and write, passably, but oh my speaking was so awful.

  8. Such a true snapshot of French class…except my French teacher never let us have parties. We did get to watch “French in Action” though. I kept hoping that Robert, the American student, would finally get into Mireille’s pants, but not so much.

    I got pretty good at French, and by good I mean, couldn’t speak it for shit. I couldn’t pronounce the French “r” to save my life. I actually was a French major in college for a couple of years until I got a grip. I still minored in it and focused on linguistics, where I didn’t have to say anything, just memorize crap.

    As a former French major, I am compelled to point out “qua” should be “quoi.” But c’est la vie. Or something.

    Did you have a French name? Mine was Monique, after the foreign exchange student in “Better Off Dead.” My French teacher, who found my blog recently (!), remembers the French name of every student he’s ever taught. It’s crazy.

    • I just made the edit 🙂
      I don’t remember what my French name was, but I knew we made all our American names sound super French…or at least like that chef in “The Little Mermaid.”

  9. Forgot: did you mean to use “rhythm” in the post? Not trying to be the writing prompt police, but I’m guessing it was an accident since you’d done such a good job bringing to mind rhythm without saying it right until the end. OK, I’m done now. Au revoir.

    • We were supposed to keep “rhythm” in mind without actually mentioning that it was the prompt, so I tried to do that with the rhythm of the language. It might have been a stretch, but c’est la vie! Au revior! Ou sont les toilettes?

  10. Favorite line: “rolling off the tongue like butter from the croissant that students are struggling to remember the gender of”

    I want to learn Spanish so badly, but don’t have the time for submersion and came out of the full Rosetta Stone no better than I went in. I guess, like math, languages are not something that comes easily to me. I took Latin in Greek in HS… dead languages. Though I did rock the English part of the SATs thanks to them…and I can throw references to mythological stories into almost any conversation, which, as you know, is a Herculean task…

  11. I was actually plucked from French class in high school and plunked down in Spanish, instead. That is how much I simply did not get it.
    Spanish? Now everyone speaks it, so…way more practical. Plus? I could easily bribe my Spanish teacher with baked goods when needing assistance in conjugation.
    This is a great response for the rhythm prompt.

  12. It’s a joke in my family, but I can only speak French in the present tense. I never learned the passe very well. You did a great job bringing rhythm to mind. Nicely done.

  13. I will admit that every word that falls from a mouth that can speak another language is inviting to me. I took Latin at a Catholic school for 4 years, I know nothing….
    but you did a great job with making me “hear” this and pulling me along with the Rhythm of listening.

    Hey if nothing else, you know you speak a better French than me for sure 😉

  14. I laughed SO hard! I took Latin (NOT a spoken language) in high school, and American Sign Language (also NOT a spoken language) in college – are you sensing a theme? When I worked at our local high school I subbed in the French class a few times. Very few things are funnier than a bunch of redneck boys with southern accents murdering the melodic French language!

  15. Oh, man. I took French all five years of high school and then two years in university. It was one of my favorite classes! The skits were actually the best part, because by the time we got to our senior year, we only had 12 people in the class, and everyone was super comfortable with each other. I distinctly remember SHAVING MY LEGS for one of them in a bathtub scene. Literally applying the gel and using a razor. We also used to pick on the guy with the thick Spanish accent and get always volunteer him to read the passages out loud in French. Whenever the teacher would ask, “Who wants to read?” the whole class answered “CARLOS!” I loved the whole thing, hard, and sincerely regret not sticking with it. But I absolutely have to agree that the writing it down is SO MUCH EASIER than saying it out loud. I also have no rhythm.

    • Agreed. It was the same group of us for years as well, most of us best friends, so class became rather easy by the end of the line. In fact, senior year a group of us were able to leave the school and go do an “independent study” at a local popcorn shop. What does chocolate covered caramel corn have to do with French? Nothing at all. Tres bien!

  16. The words don’t exactly ebb and flow in intensity with each inflection, rolling off the tongue like butter from the croissant that students are struggling to remember the gender of as they reenact an awkward café scene in front of their overly enthusiastic French teacher.

    This is genius! Perfectly stated. In 8th grade I took a combo class, yeah, they offered them. It was German/French. I don’t remember more than how to count to 10 in either language and in French, “box of tissues”. I can say it, but I sure can’t spell it. Go me!

  17. Ohmygoodness do I ever adore your words! You had so many great dry humor one liners, it was hard to keep a straight face throughout!

    I loved the ode you gave to the rhythm of the French language, the Friends clip was frosting, but this line? -I believe I either told her I was fine or that I was a car.- had me spitting out my coffee.

    So then there’s that. 🙂

    Love it woman!

  18. Love it! I’m so glad to have discovered you and your wonderful dry wit. As always, you had me cracking up and admiring the way you spin a tale. I, too, took French in high school and then again in college, and I, too, sound like a dying cat when I try to speak it. Reading and writing it is still…okay, at best, but speaking it? DISASTROUS. I do wish I could though…and I do love to listen to it being spoken. Like that wonderful Bradley Cooper video that came out not too long ago. Meow.

  19. Great post, Abby! This reminded me how funky the French teacher was in high school. Luckily, I took German with a spunky little gnome-looking man: Herr Lelko. I will never forget him. Boy could that man get up in your face if you gave a piece of fruit the wrong gender. I took German in college for a couple of years and still wish I was more fluent. Whenever someone lets me know that they are either German or speak German, I can’t help myself but to say that “Ich kann ein bisschen” (I speak a little….) which now, sadly, I can barely squeak out.
    I think everyone should be forced to sit through some kind of language course if only to have stories for their grandkids and/or pets 🙂

  20. Votre petit dejeuner va arrive dans quelques instant.


    Four years of French and this is what I’m left with: Your breakfast will arrive in a few moments.


  21. I went to a Parisian french elementary and now truly appreciate the rhythm that is true french. I can still do it – although I have no reason to. My favorite though is the twang of French Canadian dialect. It’s awesome. You must listen!
    I would like to see a movie starring Madame. She sounds awesome. A little like the new housekeeper on Million Dollar Decorators. Except I love that yours was from MI and had only been to France twice. CLASSIC!

    • I have a thing for men with Canadian accents (read: hockey players, ) so I feel you on the French Canadian twang. Madame was a piece of work, that’s for sure, but we put on some good skits and got to babysit her kids during class, so it all worked out. Voila!

  22. I was a wanna-be francophile when I was in college.
    This post reminded me of that.
    I would throw wine, cheese and French Cinema parties and blast Stereolab.
    One decade later?
    My french is a mixture of Spanglish and Hillbilly.
    Le Sigh <– Is that French or just bloggerspeak? (0:

  23. I am a reborn Francophile! My grandfather is from the South of France, my mother is French, but I don’t speak French, and I live in Tokyo with NO desire to speak Japanese but French, yet English no longer flows from my mouth. Where am I? I’m having identity issues.

  24. I love this post. The french I remember from the nun that taught me in high school, is “I don’t understand.” and I can also say the Catholic Sign of The Cross.

    Love this!! First time visiting your site. I’ll be back.

  25. Salut Abby!
    I found your site through the league of funny bitches.

    I took uh, 6? years of la langue francais during high school, and all that sticks in my head is the bizarre sentences Mademoiselle would use to teach us in the first couple of years (ou est la table verte de ma tante rouge? — and no, i’m not kidding).

    well. that and bastille day dress-ups, complaining about edith piaf and being given plastique betrand as an example of ‘modern french music’ (ca plan pour moi…).

    Then sadly, Mademoiselle became Madame, and left teaching. Then we got Frau Hairylegs… who sounds physically similiar to your teacher! Except yours probably didn’t smell like goat.

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