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by Francis Underhill

WHEN I ENTERED THE DIPLOMATIC SERVICE in 1947, French was still considered the language of diplomacy, but it became clear from the moment I arrived at my first post in Lisbon, Portugal, that I didn’t speak it very well.

I had studied French in high school with an excellent teacher, Miss Tilla Thomas. She drilled us on idioms and irregular verbs. We read Daudet’s short stories and Moliere’s plays. Most important, she also made us memorize a passage in French each week and reproduce it, with every comma in place, in a regular quiz on Friday morning.

I memorized, among many things, fables of La Fontaine, poems of Victor Hugo, the Lord’s Prayer and the Twenty-third Psalm (prayer in school?), three verses of the carol “Oh Holy Night,” and two verses of that most violent of national anthems, the “Marseillaise.” It’s like finding an American who knows the second verse of the “Star Spangled Banner.”

I took the Foreign Service exams after I got out of the Navy in 1946. There were five in two days, and one was French comprehension. Ten years had passed since I had studied French. Anticipating the exam, and aware of the weakness of my French, I had carried a French Bible in my sea bag and read it during my service in the Pacific. It was, however, the passages memorized with Miss Thomas that helped me scrape through the exam. They are still fresh in my mind today.

But I couldn’t really speak French. It is hard to find a proper occasion to say, “The grasshoppers are singing very loud this summer,” or “I wonder if the fox can persuade the crow to drop the cheese.” It is even harder to steer the conversation to the point where you can remark, “Well, I certainly hope their impure blood will water our ditches.”

AFTER A 14-DAY CROSSING on a Norwegian freighter, I arrived in Lisbon in mid-January of 1948. The Embassy officer who met me at dockside said the Ambassador would like to see me as soon as I had checked into my hotel.

I presented myself at the residence, a beautiful old mansion in the Lapa district overlooking the Tagus River, at six in the evening. The Ambassador was dictating to his secretary. He looked as if he had been sent by Central Casting. He was tall, elegant, with a deep bass voice. He had been born and raised in France of American parents and had entered the Foreign Service after college in the United States. His wife was a Polish aristocrat, and their personal entourage included two Indochinese servants, two French poodles, and a French social secretary for Madame. French was the language of the household.

He asked me to go in to the next room and have tea with Madame until he finished dictating. She received me graciously. She was also serving tea to their house guests, Anne Bullitt, the daughter of our first ambassador to the Soviet Union, and her husband, Nicholas Biddle Duke, who were on their honeymoon. As a simple country boy from New Jersey, I balanced my tea cup carefully in such glittering company. After the amenities and questions about my crossing, Madame said, “What foreign languages do you speak, Mr. Underhill?” I heard a clear overtone of “if any” in the question. I resisted the temptation to say I spoke English without an accent — no point in fouling out in the first minutes of the game — and mumbled instead about speaking a little French.

Just how little I learned a few minutes later when the Ambassador summoned me. He addressed me in French, listened to my stumbling replies, and roared with laughter. “Underhill, you don’t have your union card in this profession until you can speak French better than that. I want you to take an hour each day on office time and have a French lesson.” I said something about studying Portuguese, but he brushed this off. “Everyone who matters here speaks French,” he said. This was true at his level, but I found myself studying French in the office and the Portuguese on my own time. I had to talk with my cook, after all.

My next test came the second week in Lisbon. I was invited to a luncheon by the daughter of the Mexican ambassador. It turned out to be a formal affair for fourteen. The other guests were young people from the other embassies and the Portuguese foreign office. I was the only native speaker of English. The common language was French. I had rehearsed a few things to say about myself and how I liked Lisbon, and I hoped to keep my head down and avoid embarrassment. Just as the soup plates were being cleared, however, the hostess leaned forward and, in a clear voice that silenced all other conversation, said, “Mr. Underhill, could you explain to us, please, why the Kinsey Report is a best seller in the United States?”

Dr. KINSEY AND HIS COLLEAGUES HAD PUBLISHED in the fall of 1947 Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Today it would cause hardly a ripple, but 50 years ago it lifted a clinical corner on a then shadowy aspect of life, and it went to the top of the best seller list.The question would have been challenging if I could have answered in English. To do so in French was even more formidable.
I called on the spirit of Miss Thomas for help and plunged in. I was a serious and conscientious young man on his first diplomatic assignment. It was my duty to try to explain an aspect of my country’s culture. It wasn’t until I was stumbling to the end of my analysis that it occurred to me that perhaps the charming Mexican was hazing the new boy, and getting something back in the bargain for our having taken Texas. This suspicion was confirmed when halfway through dessert she said in a loud, clear voice, “Mr. Underhill, what are you doing with your left hand?”

I had been taught that when one’s left hand was not engaged in buttering bread or cutting meat, it should be kept in one’s lap. I glanced around the table and saw that this was not the European custom. All the other guests had both hands on the table. “Bien sur, Mademoiselle,” I replied, “it is on the leg of the young lady at my side.” Miss Thomas had not taught us the word for “thigh,” which I should have preferred to use, but the more general “leg” did just as well. The laughter told me the hazing was over.

My hand was in my lap, but the young woman on my left, the daughter of the Greek ambassador, patted my knee under the table in a gesture of approval and Greek-American solidarity that made me a lifelong philhellene.

The Ambassador was transferred a few months later and the pressure to improve my French disappeared. I was moved to Spain that fall and the Spaniards were aggressive about not speaking French. I then came home to study Indonesian and 30 years later left the Foreign Service with my French about where it was when I entered.

*Note: This column appeared originally in the Hendersonville, NC Times News of April 26, 1996.

Francis Underhill
Francis Underhill

Amb. Underhill, a career diplomat for thirty-five years, served as U. S. envoy to Malaysia.

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