Pardon My French

Allen Johnson ’85 PhD

Yucca Publishing: 2015

Funny, sexy, smart. If I only had three words in which to tell you about the pleasures of Allen Johnson’s Pardon My French, those’d be the ones.

Johnson spent a year in France with his wife, Nita, and Pardon My French relates their adventures in short vignettes arranged thematically.

One of the themes is that the French are not like us: They have their own special ways of doing—or not doing—things. Take, for instance, retail operations. A highlight of this hilarious chapter on trying to shop in French stores is this comment: “For the French, the customers are not always right. More often than not, they are seen as gravely misguided if not flat-out wrong.”

Johnson has great insight into the French language—and the pains and pleasures of learning to speak as do the French. The best way to learn French, Johnson points out, and “enjoy the French experience,” is “through full immersion. You have to mingle with the French. Those who lock themselves away in a hotel room will, of course, learn nothing—except perhaps a few novel ways of using the bidet.”

As an adult learner, Johnson’s acquisition of French is full of ecstatic successes and dismal misunderstandings. Just recognizing a native speaker (as opposed to all of us who speak the language with a “foreign” accent) is cause for celebration. One night Johnson was writing letters and his wife was watching TV. He heard an unusual accent and said, proudly, “That person is not French.” “You’re right,” said his wife, “it’s a robot.”

Johnson learns that it takes three generations to be considered a native—but that does not deter our intrepid Americans. Allen and Nita are adopted by an entire village. Chalk that up to the couple’s charm, hard work as cultural ambassadors and goodwill anthropologists, and a sense of humor that won over even the most sour of grumpy Frenchmen.