Jacque, the Jack Russell terrier, immediately established his character when I saw him attack and begin destroying a Champagne cork that had flown through the air and landed nearby. I’d stepped into the home of new friends in the Dordogne, in southwestern France, just as they’d popped the cork to celebrate the gathering.
I was just beginning to master French, and my landlady thought it would be good practice to come along to this dinner with her friends.
And as we toasted and sipped, and sipped and toasted, the Champagne aided my French.
“How are you enjoying your time here?” asked my host in French.
I returned a confident answer. “Je suis heureux, s’envoyer en l’air.”
Without pause, or much thinking, I had just translated verbatim: “I’m so happy, I’m walking on air.”
This was a triumph. Or so I thought.
Despite my giddiness, my words fell with a thud, and the room turned gravely silent—save for Jacque’s panting and slobbery gnaws on the cork.
My landlady looked at me through squinty eyes, and then suddenly laughed and whispered to the hostess, who turned back to me and smiled kindly, the way a parent does a child too young to know better.
The feisty Jacque had just finished reducing the cork to powder and began circling under the table, weaving between our legs.
My landlady at last explained my mistake to the whole table. “By ‘s’envoyer en l’air,’ Beebe only meant that she is very happy.” Numerous ahhh’s swept the table—and proverbial pressure release of pent-up awkwardness.
I took a sip, fortifying myself for what might come next. I felt Jacque tug at my leg, but ignored it because the moment of truth was arriving.
“In French,” my landlady said to me, “what you translated, the way you said it, has a more particular meaning connected to the bedroom.”
Quoi? The tugging under the table continued.
“You just said that you were in that special and brief moment between orgasm and lighting up a cigarette,” she said.
I felt a slam hit between my brow. How can a phrase change so much just by crossing the English Channel?
“The French actually have the act parsed out, to blow-by-blow designations with phrases for making love?” I stuttered. “French is a very subtle language.”
Jacque, however, was not so subtle. Unable to brush him away blindly under table, I finally looked down to see him making love to my leg.
Jacque was delivering the ultimate punchline to my idiomatic gaffe, as my leg was set free, and the host opened another bottle of Champagne.
This time we caught the cork, before Jacque could have his way with it.