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Picture Worth 1,000 Foreign Words

February 23, 1986|ANNE FOLSOM | Folsom is a Berkeley author and illustrator.

Don't let anybody fool you. If 4 million Americans will have visited England this year, as predicted, it won't be to watch the Changing of the Guard. It will be because the easiest foreign language for people who speak American to learn is English, and it's a lot nicer to travel around and see the sights if you can communicate with the natives.

Once an American gets the hang of words like "lift" and "nappy," and learns to misspell certain other words like "colour" and "grey," he is free to wander from one end of England to the other, secure in the knowledge that if he needs something, he will be able to ask for it.

Another Matter

Cross the Channel, however, and it's another matter. The average American, loaded down with French phrase books and dictionaries, is at the mercy of eccentric, whimsical publishers who seem to go out of their way to skip everything you need in favor of utterly useless information.

Even the highly respected "Berlitz French for Travelers" contains such phrases as: "Will you please trim my sideboards?" (p. 121) and "I want to hire a sled" (p. 88). Anybody who has visited Paris during July knows just how useful that one is.

An English friend staunchly maintains that his phrase book is the most helpful of all. He claims that it contains the phrase: "To the rescue! To the rescue! The postillion has had a heart attack!"

Along with phrase books, most portable French dictionaries miss the mark. Recently, in Paris, I found myself with a heavy accumulation of books, pamphlets and extra clothing. It became clear that I must ship some of it home or risk serious back problems.

Instructions in French

The mailing boxes that the post office sold me were flat sheets of cardboard with instructions for assembling printed in French. I got out my dictionary to look up " Ecartez les cotes et remplissez votre boite ," and got "Fend off the sides and fulfill your box." Then, " Calez si besoin est le contenu en bourrant les espaces vide ," which I made out to be "Draw water if need is the contents in trouncing the empty spaces."

When I finally figured out how to put the boxes together, it was clear that they needed wrapping paper and string for support. I approached the concierge.

As anticipated, her expression was a classic example of French compassion for the hopelessly handicapped. By then, every French word I knew had gone out of my head.

Desperate, I pulled out my pocket notebook and drew a quick picture of a box, a piece of wrapping paper and a ball of string.

" Ah, oui !" she cried. Beaming, she disappeared and returned seconds later with both paper and string. When I tried to pay her for them, she smilingly refused to accept any money.

Someone has pointed out that the best way to avoid the hostility that the French sometimes demonstrate toward Americans is to give them a problem to solve. The French dearly love problem-solving.

To the Beauty Shop

Fortified by my communication breakthrough, I decided to test Picture Power in another critical area. As anyone who has been there soon discovers, Paris is one of the great cities in the world for pampering yourself. Even if a woman's budget is limited, the skills of the average Parisian hairdresser can make her feel like Helen of Troy.

It is all a matter of communication. It is important to explain exactly what you want. Otherwise, the hairdresser may try to make you look fashionable. This year a person risks coming out looking like a moussed-up Mohawk Indian.

The thought of trying to explain the tedious process of blow-drying the kinks and quirks out of my thick hair had kept me out of beauty shops ever since London.

Now, armed with another drawing, I headed for the salon next to the hotel, where I was turned over to Chantal, a fetching young woman wearing trim black tights under a huge rumpled white linen jacket, which reached nearly to her knees.

As a finishing touch, she had pinned about 20 clanking medals down the front of it. Unimpressed by my look of open admiration, Chantal eyed me suspiciously, like something forgotten in the back of the refrigerator.

Effort to Communicate

" Madame ?"

" J'ai besoin d'un shampooing ?" I said. " Et connaissez-vous le blow-dry, Chantal ?"

Turning to the manager, she raised her eyebrows and made a helpless little gesture in my direction.

He came over to our station.

"I need to have Chantal blow-dry my hair," I said.

" Blehw-ddreye ?" He sounded exactly like Peter Sellars' Inspector Clouseau. " Blehw-ddreye ?"

Hopefully, I handed him my drawing. He frowned for a moment and then burst out laughing. " Ah, oui! Je comprends! Regardez, Chantal. C'est drole, n'est-ce-pas ?" Chantal glanced at it, grinned, nodded, and confidently began to brush my hair.

By that time the rest of the staff was passing around my drawing. Collectively, they offered me a glass of wine, a plate of macaroons and a lapful of French tabloids.

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