She falls in love with Pierre on her eighth day in Paris. They meet in caf?©s and in his garret apartment: he is the most romantic lover she has known, her most patient French tutor. But with each conversation, each night of love-making, the language becomes more her own. She is able to express herself more fully, more completely, but Pierre remains the same, as simple as the French she could speak and understand when they met.

Tonight, a little past midnight, they’ll come home to his garret after drinking with his simple friends. Afterwards she’ll pack her bag silently, calmly, and walk down the long, winding stairs, shutting the door behind her for the last time as she steps onto the empty street. The words he’ll yell through the window to her are the last she’ll ever hear him utter: You used me! You used me to learn French and then you threw me away!

She registers his switch from imparfait to passe compos?© with a slight, smug smile.

10 thoughts on “language

  1. Alex

    This happened in reverse to Patricia Barber:

    the English have their pudding
    the Haitians have their coup
    the Parisians have their style so
    how did they get you
    you gotta go home

    your mouth caught my attention
    French lips were made to kill
    Baudelare in my ear and a
    city that broke my will
    you gotta go home
    a sexy month or two
    now I’m stuck with you
    you just gotta go

  2. Jill

    Ha! Unfortunately I was on a family holiday and didn’t meet any romantic Frenchmen – but this story is true, in a way, well, not to the details, but it happened to a friend of my sister’s. I heard it third hand and have both pared it down and embellished it a little.

    I hope I’m right about the switch in tense from imparfait (you used me) to passÈ composÈ (then you threw me away). I can’t work out what verb to use for use, actually, probably a Frenchman would not say “Tu m’utilisais!” Mm, my dictionary lists se servir as a translation for use, perhaps “Tu te servais de moi!” Are there any French people reading this who can tell me what a miserable, yet simple, man would realistically yell out the window to his foreign lover who’s just dumped him?

    Oh, and I must hasten to add that I in no way want to imply that simplicity is a typical French trait. Far from it – it’s just that when new to a language you need friends who’ll talk simply… I think I’m rather simple myself, in French. Though I’m not shy, as I had thought I would be the first traumatic day I was faced with actually having to speak.

  3. Elin

    Friends who talk simply? Interesting. I am not sure if I agree – but the story is very amusing. I actually thought it was yours and imagined you sneaking away on your toes, with a triumphant smile on your lips:-)

  4. Jill

    Hey, I should never have admitted to its not being autobiographical, should I!? 😉

  5. renÈ

    Hard to find the exact translation. Both verbs could be used with passÈ composÈ: “tu m’as utilisÈ”, “tu t’es servi de moi”†; “tu m’as rejetÈ”. But imparfait et passÈ composÈ can fit also : “tu m’utilisais pour apprendre le franÁais et aprËs tu m’as rejetÈ”.

    The best is surely to play on alternative meanings of these verb tenses. In this way, it should be passÈ composÈ first: it was passÈ composÈ (past with two objects/persons liked one to the other), then it is imparfait (a situation which is not perfect)…

    But to know what realistically a man would yell through the window ó nobody knows until he tries, I suppose…

  6. Jill

    Oh, I love that, RenÈ. A composed, calm past (passÈ composÈ becoming imperfect (imparfait)… Wonderful! I’ve almost gone too grammatical to see the poetry in terms and tenses!

    But it’s the other way round grammatically, unfortunately. I think. Imparfait is the habitual, the description of a background situation and passÈ composÈ is for the sudden change, the once-off occurrence. I think. So she used him would be imparfait and then suddenly she (in passÈ composÈ) discarded him. Or not, I suspect these things are more malleable in real life than in grammar lessons?

    I could turn the sentence around: “She registers his transition to passÈ composÈ from imparfait” …

    … or I could see it from her point of view. Her past with Pierre was imperfect, her future (and her command of the French langauge) is composed. So I can leave things the way they are. But her current composed state of mind is not not past.


    Thanks for the suggested translations, RenÈ! And what, you’ve never shouted such a phrase out a window?

  7. lisa

    Lovely. So much story in such a compact space. And even the names of French verb tenses sound so wonderful, in whatever order.

  8. renÈ

    About l’imparfait†: a way to better understand it is to apply this common notion in English of a “continuous” state: l’imparfait describes generally a state in the past, but which is not precisely anchored in time (“j’Ètais heureux dans le passÈ”). Le passÈ composÈ describes something which is clearly behind us, which can be precisely identified (“j’ai ÈtÈ en France le mois dernier”).

    And, may I mention : for some, in love affairs, “la vie est un long fleuve tranquille”… :-))

  9. mcb

    Great story.

  10. jon

    j’aime mieux regarder que penser

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