Sue and I were traveling in NYC with my sister, Jana. We were in town for the U.S. Tennis Open and had a free afternoon due to a rain out of the tennis events. The three of us chose to tour the famous American Museum of Natural History at Central Park.
After a morning of wandering through the diverse exhibits it was time for a lunch break. We found the main cafeteria and made our selections from an inviting line up. Once through checkout we found our way to a quiet corner to continue our family visit.
Soon a group of three young families found tables near us. The three couples sat at one table and the children gathered as friends at the table next to them which happened to be right next to us. They opened their permitted outside sack lunches and set up their indoor picnic. Each spoke French and displayed what I would consider French characteristics including their European physical appearance, lively conversation and an appreciation of fine food. The children were comfortable with their museum mates and talked quietly amongst themselves as they appeared to know each other rather well.
After about fifteen minutes of sharing the space my sister thought she might venture to try her French-speaking skills on the children. At a lull in our conversation she turned to the oldest child sitting nearest us. She was about seven years of age. In a motherly and tender manner and displaying a pleasant smile, my sister addressed the child in French. Jana had taken language courses in high school and college and had traveled in France.
She began, “Êtes-vous Charles De Gaulle d’avoir du merci beaucou bon oui oui au musée?” (With which she thought she was saying “Are you having a good time at the museum?”‘)
The child looked puzzled but out of deference to an adult politely
responded without a word but using international body language indicated “I don’t understand – please say again.” And Jana repeated the phrase in a more precise manner to help the youngster absorb her question. The young girl continued to position her eyebrows in a question mark shape.
We smiled amongst ourselves at this delightful young French child who had the courage and willingness to speak with us – harmless foreigners.
But Jana was not about to give up on breaking through the language barrier. She continued her gentle questioning . . . “Ce sont Eiffel vos amis baguette ou vos culdesac Monet frères oui oui et merci champs élysées soeurs ?” (Thinking she was asking “Are these your friends or your siblings?”)
The child responded politely – “Je suis désolé, je ne comprends pas votre question.” (Meaning – I don’t understand your question. And I, too, would have to admit Jana’s French was Greek to me.)
Jana shifted into her combination favorite aunt-school teacher mode and turned to the children as if she were recreating the role of Miss Nancy on Romper Room. Using deliberate hand gestures to accentuate her French words she began very simply by pointing to the young boy sitting next to her and very distinctly said “Est-ce petite oui oui votre sacre coeur cancan jeune souffle frère?” (Well meaning to say – Is this your younger brother?) We paused for her reply as she took thoughtful sips on her carton of milk.
Then out of a sense of frustration the young French girl stood up in her chair and deliberately pointed to each one at the table and said in perfect English “Look, this is my brother, this is my sister and those two are my cousins!”
The three of us burst out in laughter at her resolve and at our limited assumptions that she could only speak one language. The parents, sitting nearby, were at first alarmed at this outburst near their children but quickly returned smiles as Jana, through her laughing tears, explained what had just happened in this innocent exchange. The parents then opened up to explain the educational experience of their children. A delightful conversation with the adults followed. For the rest of the weekend the catch phrase for us was “This is my brother, this is my sister and these are my cousins!”
Actually, Jana’s French is much better than I attempted here but still it was just shy of the young girl’s understanding. So, Jana, please Pardon my French.