The French girl who wouldn’t talk

Teenage girl looking at camera with chin resting on her hands

Read by Brenda

After 1,000 years of fighting, regaining and re-losing Alsace-Lorraine and general animosity, WWII finally convinced the Germans and French that perhaps peace may not be so bad after all. Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle sat down in the 1960s and came up with a sweeping plan to make the two countries become friends.

But all moms know how to do this. They organize play dates for their kids and when the kids fight, they force them to kiss and make up. Apparently the German and French leaders had asked their moms for advice because they did the same in the form of the friendship contract known as the Elysée Treaty between Germany and France signed in 1963. That is how the student exchange between French and German high schools came into being. We also hosted a French exchange student, Marie, for a week.

My kids were happy to do this, but their feelings paled compared to how thrilled I was. If only I’d had such an opportunity as a kid growing up in Northeastern Ohio. Just think, I could have had an exchange with a neighboring country, too, like Canada. Oh, except we speak the same language. And everyone in Quebec speaks English, too. Well, Mexico then. Except Mexico is over 2,000 km (ca. 3,000 miles) from my hometown. It’s all coming back to me now. The geography of the U.S. makes it one, giant, isolated island.

But back to Marie. I imagined how excited she was, too, to have the chance to spend a week in Germany and practice her German. The only flaw in this notion was my assumption that she in fact had any German to practice. Merely the fact that she was taking German in school was apparently no reason to think that she could say anything in that language. After all, at my school we just took a language for the credits. Speaking it was an entirely different matter. Nobody said anything about that. Passing dictations and memorizing vocabulary, certainly, but why would anyone bother to actually speak? Oh yes, there is that giant, isolated island thing.

Marie also subscribed to this philosophy. I discovered this when asking her what she wanted to eat. In German. She looked at me the way the cat looks at you when you ask her to please get off the couch and go sleep in the expensive, fancy cat bed you bought for her. Whaaa? You gotta be kidding.

Willst Du etwas Brot oder lieber Muesli zum Frühstück?

Would you like some bread or do you prefer muesli for breakfast?

Blank looks.

Magst Du Brot oder Muesli?

Do you want bread or muesli?

More blank looks.

Brot? Muesli?

Intense stares.

I finally resort to waving the bread and muesli around in the air with a hopeful, inquisitive look on my face. She pointed immediately to the bread, even though our hearty German bread probably did not suit her French predilection for baguettes.

All right. We have now determined that German is not going to work. She must have a lousy German teacher back in Paris. Perhaps they just translated texts, learned vocabulary and took dictation, as we did in French at my high school.

But I still had the ambition to make the trip worth her while. Her parents sent her all the way to Deutschland to learn something, not just tour the local palace and drink beer. I decided to try speaking English, another useful language.

Would you like to go to a museum? The city museum of Munich? I ask her.

Blank stares.

Here we go again.

Museum? Munich museum? Marie likey museum?

OK, I didn’t say “likey” but I was sorely tempted. What language does this girl speak, anyway?

Well, French, of course. With some trepidation, I pucker my lips – a prerequisite for speaking French – dust off my vocabulaire and let loose.

Veux-tu visiter le musée municipale?

As soon as I say this, doubts begin to surface. Is that how you say city museum? Should I have used the formal vous? When do they start doing that in French? I’ve read that husbands and wives still vous each other after decades together. But she’s only 15; could I have offended her? Thoughts that every non-native speaker has went through my head like “Did I pronounce that right? Is she smiling at me now or stifling a laugh at my ridiculous attempt to speak her language?” Most terrifying of all, “Will I understand her response?”

Fortunately, decades of making mistakes in German have shaved away any linguistically-themed shame I once possessed. Probably like when squires got knocked off their horses. After landing face down in the dirt a few dozen times it’s like yeah, I know, that looked really stupid, whatever. And they get back on.

Now, for the first time, Marie responds.

Oui, pourquoi pas? Yes, why not?

Off to the museum we go! We pass the wooden model of Munich from 1570 and various versions of the city’s monk logo. I explain these things in my broken French, getting back a “Oui” each time.

This response is most unsatisfying to Mom the Impromptu Tour Guide.

We then visit the Nymphenburg Palace. I explain that this is Munich’s most famous palace, where the kingand queen spent their summers. It then occurs to me that Bavaria only had dukes until the advent of Napoleon. Gosh, that would certainly interest her, but how do you say “duke” in French? Ah, forget it.

I rack my brain for something easier to say.

Ça te plaît? You like it?

“Oui, mais c’est petit!”

Marie manages to combine the first full sentence of her entire stay with an insult. In just four words. Our trademark palace is little? Excusez-moi! We can’t all have a Versailles in our backyard.

Saturday is the turning point. Language is clearly not her communication medium of choice, so we try another angle: the game Uno. Suddenly, Marie opens up. After a week of learning no German, within minutes she had mastered the necessary colors for the game: green, blue, yellow and red.

More astounding still is her immediate agreement and participation in the most outrageous rule for the game that I could muster in my desperation to get her to come out of her shell: the loser of a round would be required to go out on the balcony, spread out their arms and belt out a random opera aria.

We can’t wait for Marie to lose a round.

I lose first and strut boldly onto the balcony to sing a few lines from Carmen: Toreador en garde, toreador, toreador. (skip to 1.59 to hear this line). Just for the record, this may seem like just a few words, but opera being opera, they stre-e-e-tch o-u-t.

Marie finally loses. She amazes and delights us by rushing outside, throwing up her arms and singing a few lines of something – it didn’t matter what it was. She was participating, having a great time and had even learned four colors in German.

It was a great lesson in communication. Sometimes you have to pave the way with non-verbal messages to make people feel comfortable enough to speak. Or if you’re really lucky, even sing.

Brenda Arnold

Photo by JC Gellidon on Unsplash

Also interesting:
Linguistic sleight of hand – bilingualism at any cost
Bombs away! The WWII gift that keeps on giving
On a train to everywhere – Germany’s €9 ticket and its surprising consequences

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