What Came First: the Chicken or the Whore?

Today I couldn’t tell if the man on the Metro was calling me a “chicken” or a “whore,” so either I need to get better at French or stop dressing like a slut.

But don’t worry, this isn’t going to be a blog post about street harassment. If you want those, just google street harassment and be horrified at what comes up. I’ve definitely encountered that in Philadelphia and now in Paris, but I don’t think I am qualified enough to write that kind of post.

Instead, this post is going to be about my slowly-building self-discovery that being able to read a short story in French or correctly conjugate all tenses of French irregular verbs means shit when there’s a homeless-looking man hurling insults at your back as you run up the stairs praying he’s not going to follow you.

I’m a good French student. I’ve been taking French since my dad moved to the country when I was in the seventh grade. I got straight As all through high school and that streak more or less continued once I picked up French classes at the end of my freshman year of college and declared my French minor. All in all, I’ve never had to worry about passing a French class, because I’ve never had to worry about my grades in French classes in general.

I’m not telling you this to brag. I’m telling you this to say that I am a good French student in an American (or French, now) classroom with a French teacher (or a qualified American teacher) and other American students who are at the same skill level as me.

And I’m also telling you this because that all means nothing in the real world, in the real Paris. And let me tell you, it is an unfortunate realization to have while studying abroad.

I just wish that somewhere along the line I had learned the right French words to understand when someone is harassing me. I’m not good at spur-of-the-moment comebacks in my native language, and I feel like that would be reaching for les etoiles if I wanted to have comebacks in French. But how sad is it that I don’t even know how to identify what derogatory term someone is calling me?

This is not the first time I’ve felt incredibly incompetent with my understanding of French. I like to think that this is making up for all of the times in French classes where I didn’t completely misunderstand the French professor or I didn’t completely bomb that test. Because boy oh boy, I am failing at daily French.

Take, for example, the sheer terror I experienced in the middle of a grocery store aisle two days ago while trying to buy tampons.

[TIME OUT: please do not think that I camp out in the grocery store aisles looking for awkward experiences that I can blog about. This actually happened the same day as the events in my previous post. Talk about picking up extra items that weren’t on your grocery list!]

Obviously, I wasn’t going to write about this because who the hell wants to read a blog post about buying tampons in general? No one. Guess I found another thing that isn’t automatically cuter because it’s happening in France.

Buying tampons is like publicly declaring that you are not pregnant and that in itself is, for a college student like me, a Very Good Thing. But there is a certain stigma attached to the act of buying feminine hygiene products (for both men and women) and come on, no one really wants to be seen in that section of the grocery store.

Of course, I was there for longer than the two-second grab-and-go move that I’ve perfected in the CVS aisles in the United States because the game had completely changed in France. I was only in the aisle for about a minute or so, just staring at everything and desperately wishing I knew what was being advertised (even though if I had been carrying my French-English dictionary I totally would NOT have pulled it out of my bag because with God as my witness, I am not going to be that person). Luckily I was able to finally find what I wanted and got outta there PRONTO but I did end up using the pictures more than the words on the front of the package to make my final decision.

I had a grumpy walk home after that. I was angry at myself. I was angry that I hadn’t thought to look up certain words that would have been useful for selecting tampons, and I was angry that I would have needed to do that. I was angry that I have been taking French for so long and I didn’t even know how to make a simple purchase like this.

Wouldn’t it have been nice if I had taken a crash course in “How to Live as a Single American Girl in Paris?” Or if I had found a book with the vocabulary needed to buy tampons or understand if someone is calling you a whore? Or, at the very least, if I had known I actually sucked at the French language when I can’t study for it?

I feel like I failed as a French minor, unable to adjust or interact with others in French daily life, and I failed as a woman, unable to understand when I am being sexually harassed or how to buy feminine hygiene products.

Why the hell have I spent so much time memorizing verb tenses when I don’t know how to identify, let alone respond to, when a man is calling me a whore? What’s the point of learning vocabulary related to a certain movie or story I studied in French class when I don’t know the words needed to buy household items? How can I call myself a French minor when I don’t know how to do things that a French preteen or teenage girl can do?

Once I realized I didn’t hear footsteps behind me in the grungy Metro hallway and turned around to double-check that I wasn’t being followed by that guy, I turned up my walking speed even harder and made it to my final destination—school—in record time. And during that time, I kept repeating that man’s shout over and over again—so I would know what to Google when I got to school. I must have looked up seven different phonetic spellings of “poule” trying to figure out what the hell had just happened to me.

I even looked up if “poule” as “chicken” meant some kind of French insult. It doesn’t, and I’m not entirely sure that the French use “chicken” like in a “wuss” or “scaredy-cat” way like Americans use it. I am, however, pretty sure that it is used to mean “whore.”

I wasn’t dressed provocatively. I was wearing clothes I’ve worn to class, to work, and to dinner with both of my parents. Black cardigan, white shirt, olive green skirt. Maybe the black patterned tights (that are thicker than fishnets but still show some flesh) were what did it, but they so aren’t worthy of being used to call my sexual promiscuity into question. So there goes the whore theory.

And I don’t know why he would call me a “chicken” when all I did was walk down the hall with my eyes trained on the space right in front of me once he said “Hi,” then asked how I was, said some other really fast stuff in French that I think meant he was asking why I wasn’t smiling, and then called me the P-word once I didn’t respond to any of his initial attempts at getting my attention.

Britney Spears once said she was not a girl, not yet a woman. I say that I am not a girl, not yet a woman, and definitely not yet worthy of being a French minor.

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