One of the best things about having more than 4,000 songs on your iPod is that often something comes up on shuffle that you haven’t heard in a long time. Sometimes, in fact, something comes up that didn’t know you had. Or that you haven’t ever heard.
Corcovado is one of those songs. Its a jazzy number that I have a feeling I got on a mix CD from my friend Tyra. A pretty song, it’s sung half in French, which I’m pretty sure makes it twice as good.
I should probably understand the French portion much better than I do, having taken two years of it in high school and three semesters worth in college as mandated by the University of Missouri. At the beginning of my matriculation there I actually harbored thoughts of getting a minor in the language. That dream, it turns out, was only slightly less realistic than the one I had about playing second base for the Chicago Cubs.
For even after those three classes and the hours spent in the foreign language laboratory practicing my pronunciations into a headset that would have made Judy from Time-Life books envious, the truth is my French is “tres merde-y,” as my friend Matt could attest. He stood next to me at a gas station one night as I tried to get directions out of Athens, Greece, from a woman who spoke French but not English. Our minute-long conversation involved a lot of nodding on my part, as if I was channeling the Bill Murray character from the Saturday Night Live Olympia Restaurant skit. When I sat down in the passenger seat and Matt asked me which direction to head, I sat there dumbstruck.
I was having flashbacks to Bruno Wambi.
Wambi, from Congo, had a name that conjured up images of an African assassin. The freshman French students who had him as their teacher would say that he was. I was lucky. I didn’t land in Wambi’s section for my freshman-year, five-day a week class. I did, however, find my name on Wambi’s hit list when it came time for my oral examination, which had to be administered by someone other than your regular teacher. This ensured that you would be embarrassed in front of at least one more person that semester.
They conducted the oral examinations in the foreign language department, which, on every campus I’ve ever been on, seems to be the equivalent of the high school shop department. That is to say they’re headquartered in dirty places, far out of sight and funded with whatever money is left over after the maintenance folks get paid. Mizzou was no different. Judging by the messy cubicles, they crammed about six teaching assistants into each of them. I imagined the TAs cursing each other in a variety of languages for not maintaining a clean work environment.
It was into this morass that I stumbled in search of Wambi. I was only slightly less nervous than this kid. It was as if I was going to a job interview only it was going to be conducted in a foreign language. And my professor made it abundantly clear that, no matter the circumstances, you weren’t to speak English during the exam. This made my preparation even more difficult because it took me at least 30 minutes to learn to say “I think I’m having a heart attack” in French.
I found Wambi and we exchanged pleasantries, which contained several utterances of my go-to phrase, “Comme ci, comme ca.” As far as I could tell the phrase could be used to answer everything from “How are you?” to “How would you like your steak prepared?”
Then Wambi got to it.
Apparently, the bulk of the exam was going to deal with Wambi asking for directions to places throughout Columbia, Mo. I’m not sure if every examiner asked the same questions, or if Wambi was just new in town. This was a challenge for me, and not just because I was like a 3-year-old when it came to knowing which was “gauche” and which was “droite.”
I’m terrible at directions. I don’t remember street names. I get lost going home on a regular basis. I can’t remember which street places I regularly visit can be found on. My brothers bought me a Garmin GPS for Christmas a couple years ago because they were sick of me getting lost on the way to family functions. You could tell me that something is on the 1000 block of West Addison Street and you might as well be speaking French. I won’t find it.
Complicating matters even more, at least in terms of my conversation with Wambi, was that I didn’t have a car during my freshman year in college, having sold my 1981 Mercury Capri to the junkyard for $50 on the day before I left for school. At that point, I’m not sure that I’d ever been to the mall and if I had, I certainly didn’t drive there. I tried to convey this information to Wambi in my halting French. He, not surprisingly, didn’t understand that while I understood what he was asking, I couldn't tell him how to get to the mall -- in English or in French.
So, Wambi, like anybody who is confronted with an interlocutor who doesn’t speak his language, started speaking slower and louder in French. And here it must be said that Wambi’s mandible seemed to function independently from the rest of his head, almost like Ike, the toddler from South Park. If it was possible to be double jointed in the jaw, Wambi was. So now, as I tried to shuffle through the 40 or 50 French vocabulary words I knew that might help me answer Wambi’s question (“La plage?” Nope, there was no beach in Columbia, as far as I knew. “La bibliotheque?” I hadn’t been to the mall, so I sure as hell hadn’t been to the library. “La fenetre?” The window? Really?), I couldn’t concentrate because I was distracted by this anatomical wonder before my eyes.
I found myself just staring at him in the same way, eight years later, I’d be staring at the woman at the Athens gas station. I could see the disappointment in Wambi’s face as he looked at his clipboard, jotting down notes that I’m sure said something like “Homme est tres stupide,” only in grammatically correct French.
Needless to say, I failed the oral exam. And while I passed the class, my dreams of getting a minor in French, or, for that matter, being able to ask for directions in Paris, died in the Arts and Science building on the campus of the University of Missouri back in the fall of 1992.
I should have taken Spanish.
Wednesday: 4 mile recovery run in 37:18
Yesterday: 8 miles (with middle 4@7:06 pace) in 63:40
Tomorrow: 14 miles (Yikes!)