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His French Comes Out Greek
By Jack Engelhard, Philadelphia Corner
With the Flyers in Montreal: If there is one thing I was taught in high school it is that French is not something you speak. but something you conjugate. I can still hear my French teacher:
“All right, class, now, in unison, let us conjugate the verb – To Have.”
“J’ai. Tu as. Il a. Nous avons. Vous avez. ils ont.”
Those of us who did not know it by heart read from the blackboard which had all the major verbs conjugated in a row going from up to down. Every day we conjugated from up to down, and now, though I am unable to complete a sentence in French, you ought to see me conjugate.
But here in Montreal, the French evidently never took high school French. They show no respect for conjugation. In fact, they seem quite confused by it, and, what’s worse, they expect a foreigner to speak French, never mind up and down, but sideways.
They make a person who can speak up and down, no matter how well, really feel out of place.
For instance, here we were on the team plane where the French hostess leans over and inquires of me in French, “How are you feeling, sir?”
In her language, I replied, “I am fine. You are fine. He or she is fine. We are fine. You are fine. They are fine.”
She walked away without saying anything. Not a word about how flawless a performance. In school, at least, I would have gotten a gold star.
For the rest of the evening in the hotel, I tried to stick close to the hockey players who speak English, or those who understand French up and down. But the next day I got restless and decided to take a walk around Montreal.
Half of the population of Montreal is French, the other half English, so every second person you run into is bound to either be French or English. I ran into what turned out to be a French girl and, putting on the old charm, I said, naturally in French, “May I buy you a cup of coffee? May you buy you a cup of coffee? May he or she buy you a cup of coffee? May we buy you a cup of coffee? May they buy you a cup of coffee?”
She simply walked away. I stood there wondering if perhaps in my rush to get it all out I had missed a vital pronoun.
Then I continued my promenade and before long I was lost, with only an hour to go for the hockey game between the Philadelphia Flyers and the Montreal Canadians. I do not have to tell you how awful it is for a person who can only talk up and down to be lost in a city where almost everybody talks sideways.
I stopped a chap who could be either French or English-speaking and I said, in French, “I am lost. You are lost. He or she is lost. We are lost. You are lost. They are lost.”
Luckily, he was an American.
“Perhaps I can be of help,” he said in perfect high school French. “Perhaps you can be of help. Perhaps he or she can be of help. Perhaps we can be of help. Perhaps you can be of help. Perhaps they can be of help.”