Bastille Day 2010: I speak French for the first time

Today is Bastille Day. I realized this morning that I have a ton of short stories from my childhood just collecting dust. So, I thought I’d share one a year until I run out or die, whichever comes first. For those of you who know me, I am half French, descended from the mighty Pelletiers and Boutots. A brief search discovers that half of them stayed drunk long enough to wake up late on the wrong side of the river bank after the Treaty of Paris. Being French, they simply did not care all that much about a river between them. Still don’t.

2010 story: I speak French for the first time
When I was a pup of about ten years old, my grandmother — who was almost sixty years old — boarded an airplane for the very first time in her life in Bangor, Maine and flew to visit our litter of five halfway around the world in St. Paul, MN. My grandfather chickened out at the last minute and stayed home. It must have been terrifying for her, but she insisted on seeing her grandkids before she died.*

She had lived her entire life in the very small town of Fort Kent, Maine, just a skip across the St. John River. She spoke no English and we spoke no French. My parents were adamant about us assimilating.

To prepare us for our grandmother’s visit, my mom taught us only one phrase in French:
Je ne parle pas français

When my grand-mère spoke to us kids, we were supposed to say that. As pretty as the French language was, we ended up making it ugly by saying it like a sing-song-y rhyme that Sesame Street would be proud to own the rights to. It would have embarrassed even the French soccer team.

On the first day of the visit, my dad went to pick up his mother-in-law from the airport while we all waited anxiously at home practicing our “French.” When his car came back, this very short, very round, very stern-looking women in a flowery dress steps out, clasping her beige handbag in front of her.

She spoke. And my sisters froze up. And I piped up, “Je ne parle pas français.”

There was a short silence as this old woman welled up in tears, dropped her handbag and rushed toward me with her arms outstretched. She hugged me tight, her round, ample body enveloping me like a huge down pillow. When she finally let me go, she went and wet-kissed all us kids on the foreheads and cheeks, blurting out a string of non-stop French that I had only heard previously from my mom when one of us kids had done something that warranted a very large wooden spoon made of virgin-growth forest oak and a chase around the house.

I learned later that she was so happy that my mom had finally taught us some French and kept the tradition alive. Apparently the language thing was a big deal between mother and daughter. For the next ten days, I heard my mother speak nothing but French.

She seemed happier.

Happy Bastille Day. Drink too much, eat too well, sing too loud and hold a kiss too long.

*Never underestimate a stubborn Frenchwoman. They are all stubborn.

2 Replies to “Bastille Day 2010: I speak French for the first time”

  1. I have a similiar grandmother story! My French grandma was very ill when I was tiny, so Mom head back to France with her 2 and 3 year old children (that must have been a fun flight). We ended up staying for 6 mos, getting everything in order, with mom bringing grandma back to the States to live with us. Six months is a pretty long time for such small kids, and apparently we kinda forgot English. Dad hugged and kissed Mom at the airport, and apparently my little brother asked me in French, “who is that man kissing our mom?” and I replied “I think it’s our father.” Now Dad didn’t really speak French, so it was a moment of panic. But kids adapt fast! Of course OUR grandmother was thrilled!

  2. Funny which flashes of childhood sticks with you. And it’s almost never the ones your parents fretted so much about. French grandmas have to be the coolest ever, though 🙂

Comments are closed.