Ever since I was four years old, I remember my parents telling me that I’d be great at French. One day, when I was going to be a little bigger, and then a grown-up, I would be speaking fluent French like there was no tomorrow. Or demain.
The reason they told me that wasn’t because our little three-person unit in Helsinki was especially France loving or sophisticated. They told me that simply because I couldn’t roll the r’s in a Finnish way, but instead, let them roll deep in my throat.
One day I could turn that into an asset, they assured me. This is a story of that day.
However, the Finnish school system wasn’t going to wait until one day, and instead, I was sent to a speech therapist. I’d leave classroom every now and then to work on my s’s and r’s, and a few months later I could pronounce my first name the way Finns do, without spitting on people – or sounding French.
The family legend of me becoming a great French speaker died quietly, and when it was time to choose foreign languages at school, I went with first English, and then German, and then nothing because I was told that my math program was too tough to add any languages to.
In my second year in the business school I finally took up French. I was pumped. I was also very confident because I knew I’d be great at it. After all, even if I didn’t roll my r’s the French way on a day-to-day basis, I still knew how to do it. That first year, besides going to class almost regularly, I read Tintin in French in my little dorm room, and I listened to a lot of Edith Piaf.
The next summer, I worked at my father’s store as a salesman, selling washers and dryers, stereos, and fridges. Downstairs, in the basement with no windows, there was the department for outdoor machines, such as motorcycles, bikes, and caravans.
One day, Dad ran in from the backyard, looking for me. He told me that a French couple had run into some trouble with their caravan and had come to the store to get it fixed, but would now need some help with directions.
“You know French, right?” he asked me.
“Sure, sure,” I said.
“Ok, let’s go downstairs,” he said, and showed me the way.
The couple was downstairs, signing some papers, probably paying for the spare parts they had needed, so Dad and I stood there behind them, waiting, for a minute or so. When they were done, my Dad told his colleague that I was there to help – “he speaks French” – and took a step back.
“Bonjour,” I said.
“Bonjour,” said the couple in unison.
“Comment … je aider?” I asked no-one in particular, and cursed myself for probably forgetting a verb out of the sentence.
The woman told me that they needed directions to the camping site on the other side of the city.
“Oh,” I said, then added, “c’est facile.”
Since the store didn’t sell maps, I had to draw one for them. I grabbed a piece of paper from the desk, and noticed that my Dad was tiptoeing out of the situation. He gave me the thumbs up.
I drew a box, surrounded by a few lines, on the paper.
“Ici,” I said, and tapped the pen on the box. The couple smiled and nodded.
“Vous voulez … aller…,” I said, and the couple followed the trail of my pen, from the box, along one of the lines, while I muttered “à droit…” and then “et droit” followed by a few gauches. Lefts.
I drew the route from the store to the camping site, making as few turns as possible, not to make it easy for them, but to make it easy for me. I remembered that bread was “le pain” so I wrote that where the market square was. Thirty seconds later, the map was ready, and I handed it to the French lady.
“Merci,” she said.
We walked up the stairs together because their car was parked outside the store. They stepped out, and thanked me again. I told them it was nothing. Really.
“Non, rien de rien,” I said, and let my r’s roll like they’d never rolled before. Edith Piaf would have been proud. So was my father who had also stepped outside, and now stood next to me. He was beaming.
We watched the French couple get into their car, and as we watched them pull out, I yelled out a last “bonne chance” to them. The lady waved back as thanks.
“That went well,” said Dad.
“Funny how we always talked about you one day speaking French,” he added, as we still stood on the store steps, waiting for the caravan to turn left and disappear from our view.
It turned right.