Thursday, November 29, 2012

In Search of Lost Time: Monsieur Bilingue

My French brother, Christian, was 16 during my year overseas, and was one of most colorful characters I met during my year in Nantes by far. My French mom, Marie-Claire, had been his foster mom since he was a baby; his father was serving a long prison sentence and his mother was declared an unfit parent. Luckily for him, he ended up in a great home, which was especially important for him as a sun sign Cancer.

This gangly teenager had a Mohawk and carried a huge knife, not unlike what Arnold carries in some of his earlier movies like “Commando”. He’d always have it on him, and spent hours sharpening it. Marie-Claire was a slight French woman of maybe 5’2”, and Christian had probably 9 inches and at least 40 pounds on her as well as his big knife. I once asked Marie-Claire if she was concerned about him having it, and her response was a very calm, “It keeps him quiet.”  That was one brave woman, but I guess she knew him well enough to figure he wouldn’t try to stab anyone with it, or at least not HER. I was not so confident.

When I arrived, he immediately started harassing me verbally. My French slang held me in good stead with him, and he found out pretty quickly I wasn’t going to allow him to intimidate me.  Soon thereafter, Christian declared that he could speak fluent English. When I tried speaking English to him, he shouted, “Yeah, I understand!” in French. 

It wasn’t until a few days later that I found out the full extend of his English vocabulary. He had an incredible command of three important statements: “Shut up!”, “Suck my dick!”, and “Fuck you!” It was the rest of the language that he struggled with, and that exchange earned him his nickname, his nom de guerre: “Monsieur Bilingue” [Mr. Bilingual].

Sadly, his lack of linguistic ability was not limited to English. France does overall a fantastic job of turning out literate, well-spoken children; ask one a question and they will often re-state it and give a three-point response, just like they’re taught to do at school. Christian did not get the full benefit of the system, which many liken to a machine. He had been such a behavior problem that he had been forced out of the French education system for a trade school. His “schooling” was his training to become a landscaper, and they did not assign any reading or written homework.

The sad truth of it was that my French was better than his, which shocked me and angered him. In fact, it pissed him off so much that he continually made reference to it. I tried to avoid the topic—assuming it was true, I didn’t want to rub it in his face—but eventually my French mom decided to settle the matter with a contest: A dictée with her doing the grading.

If you’ve ever had French, likely you’ve had one of these dictation exercises. A French text is read aloud and you have to write it down verbatim. It’s not a memory exercise, though; French has tons of words where many of the letters are unpronounced, so you show your skill at the language by making sure everything looks right on paper.   

Marie-Claire read us the text, and when it was over, she stopped correcting his after he had 25 mistakes on his paper.  I had a mere seven. I wanted to shout "U-S-A! U-S-A!" but somehow it didn't seem like the right time, you know?

[As an aside, the French love this exercise. They have an international dictée every year hosted by Bernard Pivot, and the best French speakers come to face off.  It is televised, and hordes of French-speaking families all over the world sit around the TV and do it together. When my family did it, I did it with them, and this time I didn’t win, of course. This dictée is a total bitch kitty, complete with obscure rules and complex grammatical exceptions. I was thrilled when my older French brothers looked at their papers, then at mine, and told me only 10 errors separated me from them, both college-educated French people. Can we cue Archie and Edith singing “Those Were the Days”, please?]

Unfortunately, this did not engender any respect in Christian. If anything, it had the opposite effect of increasing his bitterness toward me. He started calling me names; his favorite pet name for me was “Gros boudin!” [fat blood sausage]. But I had been called a lot worse.  I tried hanging out with him some and we played some games, but he would cheat and then accuse me of cheating, so the games never ended well.

I was downstairs doing my laundry one April morning. The laundry room was across from his bedroom, and he came over to talk to me. I told him he must be excited to be getting rid of me in a month. He responded by telling me me that he’d be getting rid of me sooner than that when he came up to my room with his big knife to “rub me out”. Considering that to be teenage bluster, I told him if he intended to try, he’d better bone up on his English because I’d kick his fucking ass all the way to the States. I said most of that in English to piss him off. His response, which was in French of course, was “That didn’t sound very nice at all.”

I suspect he left Marie-Claire's home once he turned 18, but only the Lord and Lady know what's happened to him. I haven't had any contact with him since; I didn't think he'd want to be pen pals so I didn't offer. 

I'm sure he would be thrilled to know that to this day, I think of him every time I see one of those big ass survival knives. 


  1. Dictées! Je me souviens de ceux-là! Ils étaient difficiles.

  2. Oui, absolument. One of the most challenging things I have ever done is do these exercises. They help you learn but they can be painfully difficult.