To make a friend is a joy. To make a friend in another country is a wonderment—a small miracle. Pardon My French follows an American author who has embraced a daunting mission: not to be a spectator in France but an enthusiastic participant—fully engaged, fully alive.
In France, Johnson is like an alien from another planet. Everything is strange to him. His goal is to speak French without going to prison, drive without being squashed like a bug, dance the tango without losing his marriage, and belt out a tune with a world-class jazz combo without being booed off the stage.
Repeatedly, the author fearlessly steps into harm’s way. He joins a summer acting troop and witnesses the French version of sexual liberation. He pits his rather staid and conventional driving skills against the French speed demons of Languedoc. He tries to be cool in a painting class while sputtering nervously in front of the nude model with the long legs and silky voice.
And then, after it all—after the splendor of Christmas on the Mediterranean, the bicycle tours along the French canals, the mountain treks amply supplied with French bread, cheese, and wine—the miracle happens. The often self-deprecating and bungling American meets and falls in love with a beautiful mistress: La belle France. And when he does, an entire village adopts him into a new family—one with a gracious heart and a beautiful French accent.
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About the Author
Allen Johnson holds a M.A. from the University of Washington in communication and a Ph.D. from Washington State University in psychology. He is an international keynote speaker and consultant. His platform style tends to be humorous and dramatic. He served for several years as a contract presenter for FranklinCovey. Johnson is also a jazz instrumentalist, singer, entertainer, and actor.
Read an Excerpt
First Encounter of the French Kind
I DIDN'T KNOW WHAT TO SAY TO THE NAKED FRENCH GIRL lounging at the edge of the pool when her eyes met mine and she said, "Bonjour" as casually as asking for the time of day. I wanted to be hip and say something witty and smart like "Nice tan line" or, cutesier, "Would you like to be my pen pal for, I don't know, forever?" But I was new to the French language, and the only thing I could think of was "Where is the railroad station?" which really didn't seem to fit the situation.
It was not the first time I had been befuddled in France. That started on Day One of a yearlong language course in Grenoble. It was 1971 and the Vietnam War was raging. I was a conscientious objector and was granted an alternative service with the Mennonites. My wife, Nita, and I enlisted for a three-year term: one year in Grenoble to learn French followed by two years in Algeria where we taught English in a Berber mountain village.
When the summer of our first year in France had arrived, I decided it would be a good experience for me to attend a two-week acting camp sponsored by the University of Grenoble drama department. The camp was to be held at a retreat center near Dijon, which was about two hundred miles from Grenoble. I would have to be away from Nita, but I was excited about the possibilities. Acting had always been a passion for me — in college I had played Shylock in The Merchant of Venice and Henry Higgins in Pygmalion — so a French acting camp felt like a good fit. Besides, it would surely improve my French.
My wife and I had been married for less than three years. As a married couple, we had never been separated for more than a day or two. As much as I was looking forward to the new experience, it was hard to say goodbye to my beautiful bride.
"Now, don't you be seduced by some French floozy," Nita said, when she kissed me goodbye.
"Honey, you're the only floozy who interests me," I said, quickly tightening my embrace to avoid a punch to the chest.
When I finally began to pull away, she put her lips to my ear and whispered, "Don't you ever forget that I love you."
"Don't you ever forget that I love you."
Four hours later, I was tripping over my suitcase and guitar while mumbling something incomprehensible to the naked floozy at the retreat center pool.
"I'm sorry, do you know where I can register for the summer acting camp?"
"Why are you sorry?" the floozy asked.
She had me there. "No reason I guess. You just seemed so much at ease, I didn't want to disturb you."
"Why should I be disturbed?"
She had me again. "Well, I suppose. I mean I just ... "
The floozy was clearly in control. Like me, she must have been in her early twenties, but when it came to self-composure, she was decades ahead of me. She had reason to be composed. She had a sleek body that glistened in the play of sun and olive oil. Her wet, boyishly short bristles of blond hair crowned an impish, sculpted face. I had seen women like her before, but only from afar: women who had been reminded of their beauty so often that they had come to accept the praise as routine and inarguable.
"My name is ... uh, Allen."
"You sound like you're not sure."
"Oh, I'm sure. It's Allen. It's definitely Allen."
She paused long enough for a slow smile to cross her lips. She was enjoying this. "Bonjour Allen. My name is Caroline."
"Nice to meet you, Caroline." My French was quickly dwindling. There was still no lead-in for a question about the railroad station. "About that registration?"
"You're American, aren't you?"
I rolled my eyes. "What gave me away?" The obvious answer was "my accent," but she surprised me.
"Huh? Who me? I'm not nervous. What ... what makes you think I'm nervous?"
"Oh, I don't know. Maybe it's the way you're biting your lower lip. I'm afraid you're going to put a hole in it."
I released the grip on my lip and massaged it with my tongue. I took a breath, set my guitar down, flipped my suitcase on end, and sat down on it. "You're right. I am nervous. Excluding my wife, this is the longest conversation I've had with a naked woman."
"Oh, this makes you nervous?" she asked, slowly lifting and turning from her outstretched lolling position. Now she sat with her back straight and her feet to the side. She brushed her hand over her hair, which released a spritz of mist. "I'm sorry. I would not have imagined. I thought you Americans were a liberal-minded people. You know, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and all."
I was silent for a moment. She peered into my face with that look of supreme confidence. "Let me make you feel more comfortable." She then stood, walked three paces to a lawn chair, lifted a black summer dress from the back of the chair, and slipped it over her head. "Would you help me with this?" she asked fumbling for the zipper pull at the curve of her back.
I smiled to myself. I knew I was being played, but I loved the music. I zipped her into her black spaghetti-strap dress in one slow stroke.
She turned and faced me. "Thank you, Allen. You are a gentleman."
"Anytime, Caroline," I said, already feeling more comfortable. "Oh, by the way, do you remember the ending to Bob & Carol?"
"Then you know they couldn't make the switch. That is also American."
I asked her again where I would find the registration desk. She pointed the way. A few minutes later, I was registered and in my room where I met my roommate, Jean-Pierre, a graduate student from Lyon.
The summer acting camp was a stretch for me. My upbringing had been pretty sheltered. I was not living in San Francisco during the Summer of Love. I was at Northwest Nazarene College in Nampa, Idaho, wrapping up my bachelor's degree in language/literature with a minor in secondary education. The most infamous event in my college days was lived, not by me, but by my rebellious girlfriend who sneaked out of the girls' dormitory at midnight and went skinny-dipping in the public pool with her roommate. When she confessed to the adventure, I felt both titillated and scandalized. That was as close as I got to anything remotely salacious, if you don't count skipping out on morning chapel.
At the end of the first week of camp, Jean-Pierre and I decided to go to Dijon for lunch. Caroline and a couple of other girls asked if they could join us, to which we happily complied.
It was a beautiful summer day, so we chose to sit outside under an umbrella on the cobblestoned square of Place François Rude. The conversation was playful with an undercurrent of sexuality.
"Did you see Annette in the improvisation she did with André yesterday?" Jean-Pierre asked.
I knew what he was talking about. Annette and André had set two folding chairs side by side and pretended to be sitting in the front seat of a powerful sports car. André was at the wheel. As he jammed through the gears and accelerated around the corners, Annette responded with one simulated orgasm after the other. Just when we thought she was totally spent, André would shift down, which sent her screaming into even higher realms of ecstasy. She was astounding. No, that's not strong enough. She was a mythical alien from the planet of Erotica — that's what she was. When they had finally finished, even I felt like having a cigarette.
Jean-Pierre continued. "Did you notice when Annette spread her legs?"
"Et alors?" What about it? Caroline asked.
"She wasn't wearing any panties," Jean-Pierre said with staccato precision and puerile delight.
"And what is your point?" Caroline asked.
"No point," Jean-Pierre said. "I just enjoyed the view."
"And why shouldn't you?" Caroline said. "You're a sexual being."
"We are all sexual beings," Jean-Pierre countered. "Except maybe Allen."
"Hey, wait a minute. How did I get into this conversation? I'm just as sexual as the next guy."
"Really?" Jean-Pierre said.
"I'm not so sure."
I could see that Jean-Pierre was cooking up something in his elfin brain.
"I'll tell you what," he said. "Let's have a little contest between you and Caroline."
"What sort of contest?" I asked skeptically.
"Oh, something very simple. You can think of it as a little exercise in acting. Both you and Caroline will speak the same line, one to the other. The contest is to see who delivers the most sensual performance."
"What's the line?" Caroline asked.
"Let's see," Jean-Pierre said, stroking his chin for a moment. "Here's the line. 'I love you. I have always loved you. I want you now, this very moment, or I will die.'"
"Je peux faire ça," Caroline said.
"I know you can do it," I said to Caroline. I have always been a pretty good actor, but suddenly I felt like I was a miniature poodle in a dogfight going up against a gray wolf with a sticker in his paw.
"All right, Allen, you go first."
"Why do I go first?"
"Because you're the one who said you were as sexual as anyone else."
I sat tall in my chair and put on my best sultry look, which must have been unconvincing because it made everyone at the table laugh.
"Hey, I'm working here! Give me a break."
The table of scoffers stifled their giggles. I looked at Caroline, who was seated at my side. She tipped her head down and looked at me from under her eyebrows, which was fantastic motivation for me. I returned her gaze, feeling certain that my expression was seething with passion. "I love you. I have always loved you. I want you now, this very moment, or I will die."
There was a polite smattering of applause.
I looked at Jean-Pierre, who sardonically covered a yawn. "Not bad, not bad my American friend. Now, it's Caroline's turn. Are you ready Caroline?"
"I'm always ready."
Caroline reached over my body, gripped the arm of my chair, and gave it a hard tug. I was now facing her straight on. She put her hands on my thighs.
"Whoa Nelly," I said in English. "No one said anything about touching."
"No one said anything about not touching," Caroline said.
She was already in character. Her voice had taken on a low, husky timbre somewhere between Lauren Bacall and Barry White.
"Oh my God, I am screwed," I heard myself say out loud.
Caroline purred sotto voce like the idling hum of a jungle cat. "Only if you want to be, sweetheart."
I swallowed hard.
Caroline was the iconic picture of seduction. She was wearing the same low-cut black summer dress that I had zipped her into on the first day of camp. Knowing exactly what she was doing, she leaned over deeply at the waist. She was not wearing a bra. Oh so slowly she slid her hands up my thighs until she was a whisper away from Mr. Whimple.
"I love you. I have always loved you."
Then the huntress moved in with feline concentration onto my lap and held my face in her hands. "I want you now, this very moment, or ... I ... will ... die." And then she pressed herself into me, commanding the stage with a long, hard French kiss with a lot of English. The café customers who surrounded us were whooping and whistling. And still Caroline was kissing me, her warm body writhing against my chest, my gut, and lower still until I felt my toes clench.
I have been tempted in my life. In my early years the fear of hell kept me physically chaste, if not mentally pure. But at that moment I was not thinking about hell. I was thinking about grabbing Caroline by the hair, throwing her on the café table, and taking her right there in the Place François Rude. No sacrifice was too great. I was ready to be handcuffed, tried, and imprisoned for public indecency. But then, at the most inconvenient moment, the sound of Nita's voice was whispering in my ear. "Don't you ever forget that I love you." Suddenly I was back. I understood the grave consequences of accepting Caroline's invitation on that weekend in Dijon. The cost would have been more than giving her my body. It would have required surrendering my soul (not to mention a stay in the clink).
When Caroline finally pulled her lips from mine, she capped the performance with a wicked smile, puckered and touched her lips with two fingers, and then pressed her fingers to my lips. Only then did she return to her chair, cross her legs, and tip her head to her adoring fans, who were now clapping in rhythm.
"I'd say Caroline won that competition," Jean-Pierre said through his laughter. "You still have some work to do, Allen."
"Uh huh," I said, slumping into a pool of sweat.
That was not the last of the unforgettable moments at the acting camp. There was the evening after our last class of the day when I pulled out a harmonica and started playing the blues. To my amazement everyone started to dance. I got the idea of leading the dancers outside and then to the pool where everyone stripped to the waist and jumped in. I felt like the X-rated version of the Pied Piper of Hamelin.
Then there was the evening I was playing my guitar and singing love songs to the entire camp, about thirty university students in all. We were sprawled out on beds in the girls' dormitory. After a few minutes I realized that couples were fondling each other to the sound of my voice. My God, I was the film score for a French lovefest! (The movie title would be Coeds Gone Wild, French Style.)
As I surveyed the room, I noted that my roommate, Jean-Pierre, was nowhere in sight. Then I remembered. The night before he had slept with one of the campers. Now he was sleeping with his wife, who had driven up from Lyon for a surprise visit — nearly too surprising. But Jean- Pierre was undaunted. The following day his wife returned home, and he trippingly rejoined his lover.
I was afraid. I left at midnight before the last day of camp. I did not say goodbye to Jean-Pierre. Nor did I say a word to Caroline; I did not have the courage. Her spirit had beguiled me, nearly bewitched me, and so I ran. Over the years I have wondered if her alluring presence had been tempered. Could she be tamed? Would she one day become a conventional businesswoman or a loyal wife and mother? Or would she always conspire to shock and tantalize? Would she inevitably follow her own feral, nonconforming heart? I do not know. I never saw or heard from her again. But wherever she is, whoever she is with, I truly hope that she is happy.
It was three-thirty in the morning when I rolled into the driveway of our Grenoble apartment complex. I looked up at the bedroom window of our fourth-story apartment. The lights were on! It was the middle of the night. What was going on? Suddenly my mind warped from unconditional love to a manic suspicion of Shakespearean proportions. My imagination was on fire.
It was all self-evident now. I had come home a day early. In the last two weeks my wife had been stalked, charmed, and seduced. Now, at this very moment, she was entertaining a filthy French libertine — the supercharged male equivalent of Caroline. Sure, the country must be swarming with them. But this would not stand. I would throw the swarthy French weasel off the balcony and watch him splatter on the bicycle rack like a bladder of Camembert cheese.
I could feel my heart pulsating in my throat. This was not happening — not to me, not after all the temptations that I had endured and cast aside. I had been loyal, blameless — even saintly. Well, loyal anyway.
In the elevator my head was throbbing. Premier étage. I would slam my fist into the weasel's gut and finish him off with an uppercut to his stubbly jaw. BAM, BAM. I could see him fall to the ground like a sack of spuds. Deuxième étage. I would take his ten-speed bicycle and cram it up his ... Troisième étage. This was it. This was my floor. Prepare to die, you greasy frog.
I was breathing heavily now as I strode down the hallway that suddenly seemed to lengthen with every step, like looking backward into a telescope. Now the periphery of my vision had blurred. I had to snap out of it. I had to be clearheaded for what would surely be the fight of my life — maybe the fight of anyone's life.
I guided the key into the lock and slowly turned the knob. I opened the door just wide enough to slip through. I was in the living room. I shut the door behind me and dead bolted the latch. The room was dark and empty. I stopped and listened for heavy breathing. There was nothing.
The bedroom door was closed — like that could stop me. A band of yellow light poured out beneath the door. I crossed the room, stood before the door, and turned the knob — bit by bit, tick by tock — and then pushed forward. The door did not give way. A chair had been braced against the knob from the inside. I pressed harder, rattling the doorknob.
I heard my wife's voice. "Honey, is that you?"
Who else would it be? "Yes. Are you all right?"
"Oh, honey. I'm coming, I'm coming."
I could hear Nita slip the chair away from the door. I reached for the knob again, but before my fingers touched the handle, the door flew open. Nita's face was before me. Her eyes, still heavy with sleep, were gleaming with tears. But there was something else, something strange in her gaze, something I could not quite make out.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Pardon My French"
Copyright © 2015 Allen Johnson.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
CHAPTER 1: First Encounter of the French Kind,
CHAPTER 2: Thirty-One Years Later,
CHAPTER 3: The Language,
CHAPTER 4: Finding Lodging,
CHAPTER 5: The Curious Kingdom of Car and Driver,
CHAPTER 6: Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité,
CHAPTER 7: Making Friends,
CHAPTER 8: Bon Appétit,
CHAPTER 9: On the Trail,
CHAPTER 10: Song and Dance,
CHAPTER 11: The Jazzmen of Montpellier,
CHAPTER 12: In the Shadow of Renoir,
CHAPTER 13: The Holidays in the South of France,
CHAPTER 14: A Citizen of the World,
CHAPTER 15: The Americans Return,
CHAPTER 16: The Garden,
APPENDIX A: Twelve Secrets to Understanding the French,
APPENDIX B: How to Live in France for a Year,
APPENDIX C: Suggested Further Reading,
ABOUT THE AUTHOR,