I used to think I was pretty good at French… until the day I actually moved here and realized just how nuanced the language is when it’s coming at you from all angles. Old people, young people, drunk people, foreign people—they all have their own distinct accents, cadences, and vocabularies. I quickly learned that my “A” in high school French Literature meant very little in the real world, and that making sense of real French would be a lifelong challenge. So far, it has been endlessly amusing.
While I like to think I’ve come a long way, even the most basic phrases were slightly confounding at first. I can understand how new visitors to Paris might feel a little shell-shocked, especially when they’re being barked at by a burly vendor at the Belleville market who is insisting that they “MANGEZ!” the tangerine slice he is brandishing (a regular occurrence in my life).
“Mangez” is pretty clear-cut (”Eat!”), but here are some other less obvious French-isms that you are likely to come up against in stores or at markets:
“Et avec ceci?”— It’s pretty basic. All it means is “And with this?”, as in, “Would you like anything else with this?” But it’s often asked of you in a sort of slurred, rushed manner over a counter as you’re struggling to sift through the pounds of centimes that have accumulated in your wallet. I had a friend who thought for many months that she was being asked “Et avec saucisse?” (“And with sausage?”) This sort of made sense in certain contexts, but when you’re at the pharmacy buying cold medicine and are (seemingly) asked if you want some sausage with it, you might be slightly confused. The French health system is certainly different, but not that different.
“C’est moi!”— You’ll get this one when you thank someone after you buy something. It literally means “It’s me,” and is usually chirped in a sing-songy kind of way. Initially, I wasn’t totally sure how to react to this one. I later figured out it’s short for “C’est moi qui vous remercie” which means “Oh no, no, it’s me that thanks you” (for having bought something). French people are rarely this over-emphatic… enjoy it while it lasts!
And a few at restaurants:
“Je vous écoute”— Your waiter will likely come up and make this statement after you’ve looked at the menu for a moment. Literally, “I’m listening to you.” Don’t be fooled; your waiter is not inviting you to have a heart-to-heart. He simply wants to take your order.
“Ça y est? / Ça a été?”— Finished? How was it? You will most definitely be finished because French waiters are not the type to swoop in and prematurely clear your plate. At this point, you will likely be having a post-meal bliss moment, so just say “Oui, c‘était trés bon,” and you’ll be all set.