I met my landlady today, Mme Taylor, the classiest elderly French lady I have yet to meet (the phrase “she has conserved herself wonderfully” is a direct translation from Spanish, and makes one sound like a corpse or a mummy, but alas…). Her Scottish husband looked on and interjected occasionally in French as she explained my lease to me, never failing to correct my conversational French errors. Of this, I had plenty warning—my neighbor and fellow student, also a tenant of hers, alerted me ahead of time: “Use your most formal French.” I thought I sounded awfully silly greeting her with je suis enchantée de faire votre connaissance, but when she replied, “comment-allez vous?,” I knew I was on the right end of the formality spectrum.
Not withstanding her careful attention to grammar, Mme Taylor was far from uptight or stuffy. I could imagine this Scottish man being swept up by this lively, strong-spirited French woman years prior. My suspicions were confirmed when, upon questioning her choice of decor for my apartment (among various Catholic mementos, symbolic of her own religion, one will find a Siddhartha Gautama peering from the skylight), she replied eccentrically, “All the religions come together as one.”
Before long, I realized exactly against what my voisin had cautioned. All it took was one slip of ouais (familiar French for ‘yeah’) to set Mme Taylor off on what can only be described as her jovial tirade about the disintegration of the Fine French Language, about her disdain for the vulgar French spoken most of all by the youth, or more simply, street French.
“Beauty is tarnished that much more when it utters vulgarities,” except the way she said it sounded like a flower. There was never an ounce of condescension either. This was truly a generational gap, an offering of opinion expressed so eloquently that it seemed unfamiliar. It was enough to make me want to sit up straight and reach inside my pockets for something called “good upbringing.” Oh, right. That.
If I delighted in my ouais’ later on with friends, it was with a new sense of the time and the place for language. Of course, this is a lesson I was taught before I could speak—in Spanish, we carry the same difference between a formal and informal address— tu, usted, vos,depending on the country. It is common and crucial knowledge what forms of expression are appropriate in which situations, I mean, life formula #1, but to hear it expressed so frankly and quietly urgent in the sitting room of this timeless woman’s apartment, her slender fingers gently taking my wrists in confidence, made me want to move in immediately and have little afternoon tea parties with mismatched, fine China.
Read more about my time in Paris at www.thaisaparis.tumblr.com