In many situations, knowing a little French is really no substitute for knowing how to speak French well. For example, it's the difference between knowing that the special of the day -- poulet pieds sauté a la sueur de singe -- is "some kind of chicken" versus "chicken feet sautéed in monkey sweat". That's the kind of detail that could influence your dinner selection, or at least the wine you would order to accompany it.
Recently, I've been fascinated by the posters that I see in the Metro stations. With my extremely limited French, they are often a mystery for me. I can usually understand the main point, but I have trouble with the text in the fine print -- and those subtleties can make all the difference.
The beautiful model smiling demurely and holding the latest Nokia handset under a banner that proclaims "Seulement 9.99 euro" is probably just touting the latest mobile phone service. But it's also possible that she's offering to send me how-to videos of Parisian love secrets directly to my cell phone at what I consider to be a bargain price. Without cracking open a dictionary, I have no way of knowing exactly.
Most of the posters in the Metro feature scantily clad women. "Sex sells" in France just like it does in the United States. The difference is that in France sometimes "scantily clad" means no cloths at all, such as in a recent billboard featuring an extremely healthy model wearing a lot of oil and nothing else. She was joyously basking face-down on a diving board while dangling her bikini bottoms by her toes. The words on the billboard translated roughly into "summer so strong". I have no idea what she was hawking. Possibly diving boards or suntan lotion. It certainly wasn't bathing suits.
Another poster at the Gare de Lyon station showed even more. It was a photograph of a man and a woman, both of whom were starkers. The man was lying on his back at woman's feet with his dangly bits conveniently hidden by his slightly upraised leg. She was standing sideways to the viewer, proudly displaying her assets, and holding a broadsword over her head poised to turn the man into chutney. The scene was dramatically lit so I suppose it could have been a playbill for a new show, but it would have worked equally well as the advertising for an anger management class or for the benefits of the morning-after pill.
Sometimes the posters are actually about sex instead of just being sexy. At the Chatelet-Les Halles station, a man and woman are snuggling close together in a tender scene over a caption that translates into something like, "For his first night with you, offer him Hepatitis B", but I may have the prepositions wrong. It's possible that he's offering to share his Hepatitis B with her, or maybe even that there's a new Hepatitis B home-test they can use together. The exact meaning wasn't clear to me, but I can see why learning just a little more French might be necessary if I were single and dating in Paris.
Other posters that advertise movies and rock concerts are easier to decipher, but they are still open to some interpretation. I recently saw a poster that said that Leonard Cohen will be coming to the Bercy Sports Arena on July 18th, although the year wasn't specified. In the poster, Leonard is wearing a fedora and a pair of sunglasses looking basically the same as he's looked for the last 20 years. Since I've seen the same poster at a couple of different Metro stations, it's pretty safe to assume that he's coming this year. But I've also seen a lone poster claiming that Simply Red is coming to Paris, too.
I had no idea that Simply Red -- a rock group from the 80's -- was still together nor why anyone would want to see them. As far as I know, they only had one hit song. And by now their front-man, Red, who was nick-named for his shock of crimson hair, may be exhibiting male pattern baldness or at least going grey. It doesn't paint a pretty picture. So it's possible that all I saw was an old poster that had been buried under a couple of decades of handbills and had recently been unearthed like a dinosaur fossil washing from a riverbed in Montana.
The only way I have of finding out would be to try to attend the concert. If Red actually shows up maybe I should offer to buy him a big dish of poulet pieds after the show.