The first two weeks of my summer abroad in Paris, I thought my host mom was obsessed with dingos.
Her name was Elisabeth and she was an interior designer (which translated, loftily, to architect des interieurs or “architect of the interiors”). She’d started hosting American students to feel less lonely after her husband passed away a few years prior. Mon mari qui est mort, she called him. “My-husband-who-is-dead,” all in one breath, as though that were his full name.
Elisabeth, aged 59, had the kind of chutzpah I admired most in women of her age: lived alone, traveled alone, managed her own business, and, in all manners of being, ran a tight ship. In her world, all matters held up to certain standards, and when they weren’t met, it was grounds for serious uproar. If the vendor at the marché sold her an unripe melon, this was absolument affreux! If the dust from the construction outside was swept under her door, covering her wood-floor entryway in a chalky layer of white, it became insupportable!
Of these expressions, dingue was the one she invoked most frequently. “C’était absolument dingue!” she laughed at dinner after I recounted the story of how my little brother bought a bulk-sized jar of protein powder from Costco in hopes of becoming “swole.” The word was used during la canicule, the heat wave that had imposed itself on the city in mid-July, turning the Métro into an underground hellfire and making a mockery of France’s nationwide resistance to air-conditioning units. It was also used during the attempted terrorist attack on the Champs-Elysées; that, too, was vraiment dingue, n’est-ce pas?
As with all French sounds, I tried desperately to grasp onto anything familiar. To me, “dingue” sounded unmistakably like “dingo.” As in, the wild orange dog. As in Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton’s complaint that “a dingo ate my baby.” I assumed it was one of those untranslatable words that has no exact English equivalent, or at least a word that didn’t appear in my high school French curriculum. To my frustration, the French-English dictionary in my brain came up blank.
I found it ironic when people wistfully sighed that French was “the most beautiful language.” To me, listening to a French sentence was like trying to wrestle a wild animal: an act of pure struggle. All attempts to pin this thing down were futile. It was a language that refused to be tamed, a language that slipped out of the mouths of waitresses and shop attendants in rapid-fire teeth and tongue, a series of sounds to which my brain struggled to assign meaning. This meant, then, that every interaction that punctuated my normal existence—the purchase of a latte, the payment of a restaurant bill, a timid, half-naked supplication from a department store dressing room for, um, the next size up, maybe? and in black?—became an insurmountable task, an Olympic feat. Before you could ask for anything, you’d have to conjugate at least three verbs and assign prepositions to their proper places, in order, and by that point, did you really mind drinking the wrong kind of coffee? Probably not.
This inevitably led to a series of humiliating malapropisms in conversations with Elisabeth. I once told her that it was “too much hot outside today.” Another time I told her I was pregnant, when I meant to say that I’d eaten enough. Elisabeth was gracious, explaining my mistakes, speaking slowly and over-enunciating, repeating words when I requested she do so. Still, the linguistic barrier hindered the natural rhythm of conversation.
Vladimir Nabokov wrote, “My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody’s concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English.” I wondered how much of my real personality could be distilled into clumsy French. The Caroline that Elisabeth knew looked like me—even sounded like me—but she wasn’t me. I felt like a different person in French. In English, I could be talkative and sarcastic; I could understand the nuances of irony and the rhythms of syntax. In French, I could hardly string together kindergarten-level thoughts.
As the summer went on, I learned to speak French more fluidly. But on the other hand, the natural hindrance that speaking French presented taught me that I had a natural instinct to speak too quickly and too often. In English, I tended to monopolize conversational space. Speaking French with Elisabeth taught me that the best way to participate in a conversation is sometimes as a listener. Over dinners of avocado salad and baguettes with hummus, she told me stories that ran the gamut from hilarious to outlandish to sad. She told me about how her son had married an anorexic redhead, Mathilde, who could bake a cake like nobody else. She told me how she’d fallen in love with her late husband and how she’d stolen him from another woman. After he died, she learned how to sail and spent the past five summers boating in Greece. Once, she climbed a sailboat mast to retrieve a lost scarf and found herself dangling 50 feet over the Adriatic, the red prize flapping in her hand.
Sometimes the best part was the negative space, the silence between words filled in by the traffic rushing under us.
Weeks later, I would eventually find the time to type dingue into the search bar of a French-English translator. It actually means “craziness” or “unbelievable” and not, as I had incorrectly presumed, an endangered Australian dog species.
After I left Paris, I wrote Elisabeth an email thanking her for letting me stay over the summer. It was mid-August, the middle of her vacation. I imagined her captaining a sailboat somewhere exotic, like the Aegean Sea or somewhere in the Mediterranean. I attached a few pictures of Harvard’s campus—the Yard and its changing trees—wishing she could see it in person. I wondered if I sounded more competent over email, when I had time to think before I articulated. I wondered if she’d correct my grammar.
In September, she replied. Profites-en. Je pense que ce sont vraiment d’excellentes tranches de vie!
“Enjoy yourself,” she’d written. “I think these are truly the excellent parts of life!”
— Arts Executive Caroline A. Tsai can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @carolinetsai3.