You always know when you have made a vulgur faux pas in your French class.
Your teacher will look at you for a moment and pause.
She is weighing up whether or not to veer from the lesson at hand to explain your mistake, aware that her explanation may trigger that most pointless of questions when studying French: “But why?“
Or worse, she may end up having to write out the conjugations of a particularly foul word in neat letters on the whiteboard – then use her body as a human shield when one of her colleagues pops their head in the door.
In this case, the luscious Mme M decided intervention was required.
I had just blurted out: “J’ai une chatte dans la gorge [I have a cat in my throat]!” and coughed daintily for effect.
I was pleased with myself for discovering that the French never suffer from a frog in the throat – just a cat. These tasty word caramels are one of the things I love the most about learning a new language.
“Yes,” she smiled. “The French do say this. But it must always be un chat – a male cat.”
She watched me carefully, head cocked ever so slightly to one side, waiting for understanding to dawn.
Une chatte, female cat…
Another French lesson learned and one of the very few not instantly forgotten.
I still think “cat in the throat” is a delicious French expression. It sums up so much about what it is like to live in a new country, in a new culture, speaking a new language, when your words get tangled up and coughed out and may well be misunderstood or misconstrued, so I will continue to savour and use it (correctly) every chance I get.