The Last Word by Marcus Fisk

The Last Word – A Common Language

Our place in Normandy. Cows and horses inhabit the neighboring fields. Life is a Cabaret.

Alexandria, VA – “In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language.

–Mark Twain

I looked at the calendar the other day. I had completely lost track of time and realized that it was about a year ago this month that we settled into a house in Normandy, France.

It took us three months to find a home to rent. Why so long, you ask? Well, it seems the French have enthusiastically embraced the very American idea of fast cash with no strings attached by short-term or vacation rentals of their houses rather than going through the financial and legal hassle of bringing an old historic home up to code.

In France, owners who wish to do long term rentals are required by law to ensure that their house meets electrical, sanitation (sewer), and building codes (old tile roofs) to list their homes to do long-term rentals. For an expat looking for a long-term French home to rent before you buy, well, as they say in the U.S., good luck with that. [i]

After arriving in February 2022, we booked an Airbnb for a month and figured finding a place would be no problem, just like in the U.S. I spent the entire month online responding to rental ads explaining our recent arrival in France from America and asking to see properties and…No problem, right?


By sheer happenstance and contacts, we lucked into a house in the south of France for two months that was owned by a couple of expat Americans. Two months later, with over 50 online requests to see properties, something had to open up fast. We had ordered our furniture shipped from the storage company before the summer moving crunch hit. Two months later, we were faced with no place to live and a shipment of everything we owned arriving in two weeks. We had an excellent financial portfolio, three retirement pensions,[ii] and yet we heard zilch.

An American expat friend explained why our appeals fell on deaf ears: language. She helped us translate our plight, email an owner in French, and voila! We had a showing! We bought a car, opened a French bank account, bought auto insurance, bought renters insurance, enrolled in the France Healthcare system, found out where the grocery and markets were (and what the market days were in which towns), met a handyman, ordered electricity, applied for our next Visa, found an electrician, ordered a winter’s worth of firewood, had our Norman Brocage hedges trimmed, secured internet and phone service, and ordered gas delivered – all without the benefit of the French language.

As a former actor, I was able to link a smattering of French words with pantomime to bridge the communication gap. Clearly, however, we were learning the hard way that French was the key to our survival.

I am fluent in German from 14 years study in school. The good thing about Department of Defense schools overseas was that it required dependents take the host nation language in school. I picked up some Thai from our tour of duty in Thailand. Then came a smattering of Spanish, Japanese, and Arabic from Navy days. Now that we had decided to settle in France it was just a matter of time invested in Duolingo and a French tutor and we’d be off and running. Or so I thought.

Pam busy in la Jardin (That’s ‘garden’ for you non-Francophiles

Enter Michelle Paillot. A retired school teacher from a neighboring village who is very proficient in English – so much so that she taught English to a variety of students of all ages. Now she was switching gears – French to English has become English to French. Twice a week she flies up our driveway, enters in a flurry of excitement and, the “Bonjours – Ca Vas” exchanged, launches headlong into a quick rundown of news events and happenings in our area – in French!

Pam and I have finally started to unlock the linguistic Gordian Knot known as French, but it’s an uphill climb. The position of one’s mouth to pronounce certain words can be alien to the American or British ear.[iii] The famous double “L” is a mind-blower. The consonants are not pronounced unless followed by a vowel, in which case, they are used and accentuated. Conjugating a verb is an exercise in linguistic gymnastics. The various forms of a verb are all spelled differently, but then, just as you get used to spelling them, you are cast adrift when learning that consonants are completely ignored and verbs are all pronounced the same.

There are some similarities. Since the Anglo-Saxons and the French were so intertwined by royal marriages and back-and-forth wars, many words are close or interchangeable and easy to decipher. A rendez-vous is nearly the same – an appointment in French and a meeting or get-together in English. A chambre is – close to the obvious — a bedroom. One cooks cuisine in a cuisine (kitchen), a “table” is pretty straightforward, and a ville is a city or town. Laissez Faire is a universal French-English economic concept to just “leave it alone.” So, you get the drift.

Some words have come into being in French that appear to have been lifted from the English as well. I was staggered one Friday when a store clerk wished me a “Bon Weekend.” Yep, that’s right. “Weekend” is the same in French and is now an acceptable phrase, but spoken with a French accent.

One of the locals from Blangy le Chateau eyes me suspiciously after I explain I was there to see the bands play. Do you think he knew I was an American?

There are some words that defy translation or even carry a double meaning. And we’ve learned that it’s “all-in-how-you-use-it-in-a-situation” that determines it’s meaning. A “hotel” can be a hotel or an important building like a town hall. Others sound alike but are spelled differently. A “Maire” is the Mayor and a “mari” is one’s husband. Same pronunciation, different meaning. Unless your husband is the Mayor, then “Mon mari est le maire” may confuse an American, but is just dandy for a French woman who is mixing with the in crowd.

What’s fun is that old linguistic bugaboo to English-speaking peoples known as the masculine/feminine conundrum. I spent years getting that straight in German so at least I have a chance with French. My bride however, is stymied by this distinction.

“How can a car or a table be feminine and mascara be masculine? And why do I order a ‘wine, white’ or see a ‘tree, green’?” Madame Paillot responds, “Well, it just is — in French.” She covers her eyes and starts to laugh because she knows there is simply no way to say it in English.

Dodging the morning traffic after a routine visit to La Boulangerie for croissants and pain chocolat.

Until the time when all the verbs, tenses, adverbs, adjectives, and colloquialisms stick, however, I guess I’ll just have to keep my Google Translate close by – and continue to hone my pantomime routines.

[i] Or translated for New Yorkers — ‘Foggedabahdit.’

[ii] The French are simply ga-ga over pensions.

[iii] I also have to avoid sounding like Inspector Clousseau so I don’t offend the locals.  It can be daunting since Peter Sellers is one of my favorites.  And I have a tendency to start to laugh remembering some of his antics. I have the U.S Embassy phone # handy just in case.

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