Admit it, you want to be French. Or at least be able to pass yourself off as French, like a spy who fools everyone with her secret identity. What a dream it is to speak perfect French, be stylish and sexy, and actually know what postmodernism means.
But to do that you have to pass through the different stages of Frenchness, slowly graduating from one to the next. Let’s take a look at these stages as they occur in France.
Stage 1: Silent
You can barely speak French so you don’t say much. You know words like bonjour and merci and bon, but even then you mix them up. You point a lot and play a kind of charades and pray that whoever you’re trying to communicate with speaks some English. You suspect that French people are making fun of you behind your back, or maybe even to your face, but you can’t be sure because you don’t understand what they’re saying.
The closest you get to engaging with French culture is eating at a French restaurant, which is dangerous because you can barely read a menu. You stick with what you know, eating a lot of salade niçoise and steak-frites and tarte tatin, but eventually you get tired of these and order something else. This is an adventure that may not turn out well; you may order veau but miss the part about cervelle and be presented with a steaming plate of veal brains.
Stage 2: Stupid
You make a lot of faux pas, like forgetting to say bonjour when you enter a store. Or ordering coffee with your cheese. Or showing up on time for a dinner invitation, which means you’re an hour early and the hosts aren’t even dressed yet.
Your French improves and you can construct baby sentences, but you’ve only mastered one tense so everything takes place in the present. You have conversations, or at least one-half of them. This is because after you say something, the other person says something back and all you hear are a bunch of words that run together. So while they look at you expectantly, waiting for a reply, your brain freezes, you start to sweat, and you think about maybe making a run for it.
You will experience this sort of humiliation many, many times. You will ask yourself why you wanted to become French in the first place, until you remember that it will make you sexy and so you carry on.
Stage 3: Breakthrough
Now you’re getting somewhere. You can have real conversations, although they’re still simple ones and you confuse people because you think of what you want to say in English and then translate it word for word into French. You’re like a French person trying to say, “I’ll see you later” in English and saying, “I you will visit more late.”
You learn about the French political parties and start to identify with one. You decide that Napoleon wasn’t such a bad guy after all. You buy a fresh baguette every day and break off the end to eat as you walk home. You make a French friend. You start to wear scarves.
Stage 4: Stupid Again
Now you can talk to French people and respond to them right away, rather than slowly building a sentence in your head while they wait for you. But the more French you learn, the more you realize what you don’t know. You become painfully aware of the many mistakes you make when speaking, even while you’re making them. And you’re always mixing up those pesky prepositions — is it dans, à, sur, en, par, or a new one you haven’t learned yet?
Otherwise you are making good progress. You know how to pick out a good melon at the market. You go to movies and laugh when everyone else does. You complain about American tourists and begin to root for les Blues even though you don’t understand soccer. You swear in French.
Stage 5: Poseur
You speak so well that you almost pass for French. You dress stylishly, with tight pants and nice shoes. People stop you on the street to ask for directions. You subscribe to Libération. You make snide remarks about the British.
You learn how to make a proper omelette and pick a good bottle of wine. You complain bitterly that six weeks of vacation is not nearly enough. You join a street protest, attend a lecture on existentialism, and follow every stage of the Tour de France.
You are nearly to the top but there’s one thing that trips you up — your childhood memories. You don’t have the right ones because you didn’t grow up in France. When people reminisce about les Shadoks, you don’t get it because you watched Scooby Doo. You despair of ever being French but then you remember that Joan of Arc overcame challenges nearly as great as yours and you resolve to carry on.
Stage 6: The Summit
You are completely French and your accent is perfect. You know your way around a cheese plate and actually like blood sausage. When someone quotes Molière you respond by quoting Corneille and then get into a heated debate about who was better. You get misty-eyed remembering your first bottle of cabernet franc. French people try to seduce you.
… and then you wake up, still stuck in stage five.
Because let’s be honest, can anyone actually reach this summit? No, because the French are different, a breed apart. So while we may love all things French, there will always be a certain je ne sais quoi that prevents us from taking that final step. As the French say, c’est la vie.