A nugget of Big Medicine every day. #71 Don’t say this at home
In learning the french language as a paramedic with Urgences Sante [Montreal EMS], I had several linguistic misadventures.
These are two of my most spectacular wipeouts.
On a night shift we pulled into Le Chalet de la Frite [french fries] in Verdun. I went inside and walked up to the counter to place my order with the attractive young woman working the cash. “I’d like a poutan,” I said confidently in my loud voice- referring to what the little resto was famous for – a plate of french fries with melted cheese and gravy. Silence and a look of – what was that – confusion. Maybe she was new here. Maybe it was my accent. I tried again.
“I’d like a poutan,” I said slower and a bit louder this time, ensuring my annunciation was clear. More silence and yes, that was definitely confusion on the young woman’s face.
“Is there a problem? I would like one of your poutans,” I said again – probably a bit too aggressively.
At this point, the rough-and-tumble guy working the back of the shop burst into the front yelling, “Why you call my sister a whore!”
Uh-oh. “I must be using the wrong word. I’m sorry. I’m just learning french. I want the french fries with the melted cheese and the gravy,” I stammered in the face of certain death.
“Aaaahh, poutine. You want a poutine! Hahahahahahah!” Much laughter ensued and I got a huge poutine-to-go.
My partner wanted to know what was going in there. Why did it take so long to order a poutine? I told him. More laughter ensued.
By this time I was becoming famous among my peers for all the wrong reasons.
Sadly, french did not come naturally to me despite the fact I was a second-generation Quebecois.
We were in the Boul St-Joseph apartment of a very proper little old lady who needed to go to the hospital. She had been suffering quietly with severe abdominal pain for several days however she was too stoic to actually call anyone for help. Finally, the building’s concierge [janitor] checked in on her and found her curled up in terrible pain on the sofa. Over her quiet protests he called 911.
The apartment was immaculate. It was an art deco time capsule. Our patient was extremely well spoken. She explained that she had been a teacher of french literature and she and her husband had lived in the same apartment for nearly 50 years. He had died a few years earlier and now she was alone.
We were gathering the things she would need in the hospital. My partner had done most of the talking because I was still a bit gun-shy after the whole poutine incident. She was very organized and had prepared a small bag in the event of just such a situation. I noticed she had left her pocketbook on the coffee table so I asked her if she wanted to bring her sac-a-poche to the hospital.
You know that feeling when you know that you’ve somehow said or done the wrong thing but it’s already out there and there’s no way to take it back? The expressions on the faces of my partner, the concierge, and our patient indicated that I still had a long way to go with learning my french vocabulary.
Turns out I had just asked our eighty-something-year-old widow if she’d like to take her scrotum to the hospital. Probably not.
She was gracious as she corrected my horrendous faux-pas, patted me on my hand, and suggested I stick with english until I felt a bit more comfortable en francais.
Be well. Practice big medicine.