What does an American wolf say?

I’m part way through my second semester of French classes and truth be told, I’m in over my head. Things have accelerated quickly and I have the distinct feeling that the students folded into the chairs around me understand a lot more than I do.

I like being in school though and I figure even if I am only catching every other word, I must still be learning something.

My favorite class this term is, la langue oral.  And not just because I find speaking French infinitely easier than writing it.  The woman who teaches the class is an endlessly odd character and she keeps the three hours each Monday entertaining.

Madame Perruque (as I will call her) is a tiny blond firecracker of a teacher.  She’s very lively and seems to enjoy what she does. But she has two incredibly distracting qualities:

I am almost certain, but not positive that her short blond bob is a wig and I am desperate to find out.

I get lost during class sometimes, in a private little world of examining her hairline, trying to analyze any subtleties that could solve the mystery.

la gare

If it is a wig, it’s a good one.  I would guess that it’s made of human hair because it has dark roots like a slightly grown out dye job and a few little flyaways at the part.  But the hair at the front near her forehead is off, and there is something incongruous going on with the hair on the back of her neck and and the blond waves above it.

Six weeks in and I am leaning towards wig, but I still am not totally convinced.

Her second distracting quality is her lipstick. She wears a bright red hue that often ends up on her teeth.  As I stare intently at her mouth, trying to decipher her words, the red smudges on her front teeth are mesmerising.

She takes care to enunciate each word for us, over pronouncing difficult ones, as she tries to demystify the sound of the French “R” for our foreign tongues.

But I can’t stop my attention from shifting to the lipstick marks and wondering how many words it will take to wipe them away.

Madame Perruque’s eccentricities extend far beyond the probable wig and the hastily applied rouge à lèvres though. We have a melange of nationalities represented in our little classroom and she likes to use particulars from our respective countries as examples of correct French pronunciation.

Cap Ferrat

This almost always creates a deeply embarrassing few minutes for everyone – especially the subject of her efforts.  When I mispronounced the word pour (for), she stopped me mid sentence during a presentation about a local butcher shop and asked me (in French) “what does an American wolf say?”

I thought surely I’d misunderstood, and asked her to repeat the question.

“An American wolf”, she repeated “what does it say?” and then she answered her own question. “Ahhhhoooooooooo” she continued, “now you do it.”

My face instantly flushed.  I had a frantic internal discussion trying to decide if I would stay silent or howl like a wolf.  Either way the outcome wouldn’t be great.  I decided if I was going to do it I had to really go for it.

I cleared my throat and repeated after her with my own “Ahhhhooooooooooo.”  she looked pleased and said “now repeat pour, it’s the same sound.”  I did as I was told.  “Okay and now the wolf again.”

Thoroughly humiliated, but admittedly impressed with the howling skills I didn’t know I had, I obeyed.

If the student body of the French as a Foreign Language section of Nice university is any indication, it would seem that the women of the world are much more interested in learning French than the men.


There are just two guys in the class: Roland, a cute and painfully shy Hungarian teenager who sits in the back of the class and says very little, and the equally quiet Hiro – an attractive, gay, Japanese guy in his early twenties. They were Madame Perruque’s next victims.

We were discussing a magazine ad that used a woman’s lithe, bronzed, legs to promote the new Fiat 500 and she wanted us to make different arguments about le problematic of the image.

In what I think was an effort to encourage a conversation about the objectification of women, she turned to the men in the class to make a point.

“Hiro, Roland, what is the first thing you notice when you see a woman?”

Her question, awkward at the best of times, was followed by excruciating silence.  Then after some prompting, a hesitant answer emerged from the back of the room:

…Le visage?” and then a nod of agreement from Hiro, “oui, le visage.”

But that didn’t seem to be the anatomy she was looking for.

“No!  Les Jambes! Les Jambes!  Bien sur!”

Each week, we stand up in front of the class and give little presentations on something or other, while she interrupts us to correct our pronunciation and ask questions.  She insists that we not repeat words, so every minute or two she’ll cut in and demand a synonym.

While I appreciate the help expanding my vocabulary, sometimes trying to avoid using a word twice can lead down an unfortunate path.

Le Negresco

Someone had chosen the recent demonstrations in France for and against same sex marriage for their discussion topic, and after using homosexuel, homosexualité, and lesbienne, the student had used up all of her words. Madame Perruque was sticking to her rule.

“And what are other words you could use?” she asked the class.


“You could also say pédéraste.” she answered “ped-er-est.”

More, now incredibly uncomfortable, silence.

I don’t know If Madame Perruque actually thinks that gay men are pederasts or if she is using an old definition of the word or what, but, in a room full of foreigners trying to learn the language so as to be able to fit into society, it seemed an unfortunate choice.

I can only imagine what distractions and new words next week will bring.

2 thoughts on “What does an American wolf say?

  1. I spent years in Canadian French immersion schools and it’s the same…correction, embarrassment, carry on, repeat frequently. One of my favourite teachers was originally Belgian, Mme Coutu. A large lady with a booming voice. She took great care that we enunciated each and every word. Madame would always say, “…unlike English in which you could carry on a conversation and hardly move your lips, in French you MUST open your mouth and enunciate each and every word. It didn’t help that French from Europe is miles from French in Canada…we were all very confused whenever we had a substitute. It was like they spoke a different language. I wish you well in your class…maybe bring her a “pain au chocolat”.

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