Friday, July 22, 2011

"The French Connection"

By Jerry Zezima

The Stamford Advocate

I’ll always have Paris.

Excusez-moi, s’il vous plait. I should say I’ll always have Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport, where I recently spent eight minutes (huit minutes) sprinting from one airplane (l’avion) to another during an otherwise magnificent (magnifique) and memorable (memorable) trip to France (la France).

My wife (ma femme), Sue (Sue), and I (Jerry) flew from New York to Boston, where we had a layover of more than five hours (cinq heures) before crossing the Atlantic (Atlantique) to Paris and then, after our mad dash through the airport to catch our connecting flight, which was boarding as we were landing, to our final destination, Marseille (no translation).

It was during this interminable journey that I completely mastered the French language (francais). Using a book titled “Say It in French,” I memorized key French phrases (Ou sont les toilettes? Where is the men’s room?) and words (au secours! help!), then practiced saying them with a nasally intonation that would have sounded better if I’d had a head cold.

Unfortunately, I fell asleep during the last hour of the transatlantic flight and forgot most of it, though I managed to get by without insulting anyone, which might have gotten me in trouble with the police (gendarmes).

Fortunately, and contrary to their unfair reputation for being rude, the French people were extremely pleasant (agreable) and helpful (utiles).

Whenever I didn’t know what I was saying, which I can do in any language, I would ask, “Parlez-vous anglais?” (“Do you speak English?”) The very nice person who knew I was a fumbling American (americain) would smile, hold his or her thumb and forefinger an inch from each other and respond, “A leetle beet.”

Then that person would proceed to speak English with a charming French accent. To show my gratitude, I would speak English with a terrible French accent.

This came in handy when our luggage (les bagages) showed up two days after we did. I consulted my little phrase book for the proper reaction (not repeatable in either language) after being forced to wear the equivalent of a prison-issue T-shirt that was kindly provided by the airline. You don’t know what a thrill it is on your first visit to a foreign country to wear the same underwear (les sous-vetements) for 48 hours.

My mastery of French also came in handy when eight of the nine people in our party got violently ill. The sole exception was me (moi). It was not because of the food. Au contraire! The meals we had in France were delicious (delicieux). Rather, somebody caught a stomach bug that passed from one person to the next until the toilette almost exploded.

“Je suis pas malade” (“I am not ill”), I told Bruno, who, with his lovely wife, Gielle, owns Hostellerie du Luberon, where we stayed.

“Pourquoi?” (“Why?”) he asked.

“Vin rouge” (“Red wine”), I explained.

“Ha ha!” (“Ha ha!”) Bruno laughed. “You have French blood!”

When everyone was feeling better, we went sightseeing. The South of France is like rural New England, with its rolling green (vert) hills and farms. Vineyards (see: vin rouge, above) are everywhere.

I especially enjoyed the markets in Luberon and Cadenet, where I purposely stood in people’s way just so I could say -- in French, of course -- “pardon” (“pardon”).

One day Sue and I got into our rented car (la voiture) and took a day trip to Aix-en-Provence, where we got lost thanks to the annoying woman whose voice, in English, was programmed into our GPS (Gallic Positioning System).

Her (for the 150th time): “Recalculating.”

Me: “Taisez-vous!” (“Shut up!”)

All in all, however, our trip was fantastic (fantastique). France is a beautiful country with wonderful people. Next time we go, we’ll see more of Paris than just the airport.

Vive la France! Merci beaucoup. And, to anyone who was within earshot when our luggage got lost, pardon my French.

Copyright 2011 by Jerry Zezima

Friday, July 8, 2011

"Father Knew Jest"

By Jerry Zezima

The Stamford Advocate

One evening, when my sisters and I were young, we were eating dinner with my parents when my father suddenly complained that he had a splitting headache. “It feels like my eyes are about to pop out of my skull!” he moaned.

Then he got up and stalked out of the kitchen. We were all worried because my father never complained about anything.

A minute later, he came back into the kitchen wearing a pair of fake plastic eyeglasses, out of which, on springs, popped a pair of bloodshot styrofoam eyeballs.

My mother, my sisters and I burst into laughter. My father proudly joined in.

He had spent the day at work, fashioning these glasses that made it look like his eyes were popping out of his skull, just so he could play a practical joke on his family.

“What a guy!” I thought. I had always loved and admired my father, but from that moment on, he was my hero.

I grew up wanting to be like my dad, the original and best Jerry Zezima, because he was the funniest guy I ever knew.

One of his favorite stories involved his service in World War II. He was too humble to brag about his Purple Heart, but he did love to say that when he arrived in London, he got a letter from his mother, warning him about all the seedy nightclubs she had read about in the paper. In the letter, she included the names of those clubs. My father smiled and told me, “They were the first places we went.”

One night, when I was a kid, I was trying to get to sleep in my bedroom when I thought I heard my father crying. I got up, padded down the hall and found him in the living room, crying -- with laughter -- while watching Laurel and Hardy.

“They were on a train,” he later explained, “pulling people’s pants down.”

Thanks to my dad, I came to appreciate the genius of Stan and Ollie.

I also grew to revere other comic duos, like the Road Runner and the Coyote. My father and I watched their crazy cartoons, cackling as the Coyote’s attempts to snare his avian adversary with a contraption from the Acme Company invariably blew up in his face.

We also loved another animated twosome, Sylvester and Tweety, the former a fumbling feline who hungrily stalked the latter, a little yellow bird who exclaimed, “I tawt I taw a puddy cat!” When Sylvester got his comeuppance, which usually involved an anvil, my father and I roared with delight.

Then there were Jackie Gleason and Art Carney, two other comic geniuses who starred in “The Honeymooners,” which my father thought was the greatest sitcom ever made. So do I.

My father and I were also a comedy team. I was the straight man. Whenever I called my parents after work and my father answered, he’d say, ostensibly with a mouthful of food, “We’re right in the middle of dinner.”

“Sorry,” I’d reply.

My father would chortle and say, “I’m just pulling your leg! We already ate.”

In some ways, we were comically different. He was the handiest guy I knew. Unfortunately, his skills skipped a generation because I am the least handy man in America. To me, a screwdriver is vodka and orange juice.

My dad was ahead of his time in that he was thoroughly domesticated. He bathed us kids when we were babies, he fed us, he did household chores. My mom said he never left his dirty socks and underwear on the floor. For me, it was another trait that unfortunately has skipped a generation.

One thing that I wasn’t bad at, and at which my dad excelled, was sports. He played semiprofessional football as a young man and always found time to have a catch with me. He also took me fishing a lot. Once, when I wasn’t with him, he caught a 41-pound striped bass. My mom took a picture of him with the monster, which he then gutted, cleaned and chopped into fillets. Only afterward did he realize that he should have had it mounted. “It would have been a great trophy,” he said.

But the real trophy was my father, who died recently at 93.

Mark Twain once said that there is no humor in heaven. That’s not true anymore because my dad is there, laughing at the antics of Laurel and Hardy and playing practical jokes.

God, they’ll love the one with the eyeglasses.

Copyright 2011 by Jerry Zezima