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Something plucked out of a swan’s bottom.
“How’s your French coming along?” ask visiting old friends and the few remaining relatives that will still talk to me.
“Oh, OK.” I reply. “It wasn’t too bad when I first decided to move here ten years ago and it has gone steadily downhill ever since!” I continue.
This usually results in my planned reaction of surprise from my victim. At the very least it is a good way for me to check whether they are still *listening/interested/awake/alive (* please delete as appropriate.)
Often I’m asked to elucidate. Elucidation (amongst other things) gives me pleasure and therefore I try.
Well let’s put it this way. When you first arrive you find your new found Froggie chums will make allowances for you. Because they know you are a new arrival. After a while though understandably they get bored. This means that when once you could get away with mangling their language and they would patiently listen and continue with some sort of conversation, later on they won’t. They simply walk away. They do this so as not to appear rude or to offend you. As the French are generally a very gentle and kind people.
So in desperation you attend a night school for languages. Only to quickly discover that the teacher assigned to educate you is a descendant of le Marquee de Sade. Whatever you thought you knew and which you had learned as a schoolboy is totally and utterly meaningless to the average French man or French woman. The French do not ‘borrow their Aunt’s pen' as in “la plume de ma tante”. They probably don’t even have an Aunt and what’s more, if they did, she wouldn’t be using something plucked out of a swan’s bottom to write with. She’d be using a ‘stylo’.
So it goes on. French people are not in the habit of ‘going for a walk on a bicycle’ (une promenade un bicyclette). They go for a ride on a soddin’ velo (allez sur un tour de vélo).
You struggle on and on, devoting valuable Chardonnay quaffing time, sat humiliating yourself in a school classroom with enough chewing gum stuck to the underside of your desk to trap you there until Arnageddon, until one evening you realise that you are making ‘aucun progrès du tout’ (no progress whatsoever). So you give up. As indeed all the rest of the class do. The main reason incidentaly that course fees are also required to be paid for the whole term 'in advance'. With no refunds. Quite reasonable under the circumstances and I would invoke exactly the same rule if I were them!
One soon discovers that uttering single nouns, in a shop or a restaurant for example, coupled with waving a ten Euro note around, will generally get you noticed (do it in the red light district at the back of Rennes Railway Station and it’ll get you arrested!).
Avoid the gender bit though, only the French are daft enough to bring sex into a dining room table! Just say “table”. Except it isn’t pronounced like that of course. The French would say “Tarblugh”. You get my drift though. One should actually say “la table”. Meaning it’s a female table. No drawers and four bare legs isn’t like any female I know but then I’m not from Wales and in the habit of eyeing up freshly shorn sheep.
In a restaurant, if you're feeling particularly brave, you can try something like “Je voudrais une table pour deux, s’il vous plais.” Meaning “I would like a table for two, if you please.”. It might get you somewhere, it might not. For me it is generally met with the reply “comment?” which is an abbreviation for “What the hell are you talking about?” Add a ten Euro note though and the response will generally be something more like “Certainement monsieur, me suivent si vous plais.” meaning “Certainly Sir, follow me if you please.”
Anyway, I digress. More of my early experiences in this wonderful country.
My wife and I were in the beautiful medieval city of Rennes one evening and realising we had left it rather too late to continue upon our planned journey to Paris decided instead to look for a hotel. It was getting late but it was still very busy. We thought the city centre provided the best opportunity to find somewhere convivial to stay. We were anyway hoping to dine in one of the literally hundreds of legendary restaurants that grace this fine city. Every lobby we enquired at for a room met with the same response though “Désolé mais nous entièrement sont réservés ce soir.” meaning “Sorry, but we are fully booked this evening.” Bablefish will tell you it means “Afflicted but to us entirely are reserved this evening.” and now you might just begin to understand why the soddin’ language is all but impossible to master!
Finally I saw a street sign that read “Hotel de Ville.” I knew at once it must be an upmarket sort of place as it was rather a posh sign and so we followed it into this grand town square. All along one side was a magnificent period building. It was floodlit and had four or five levels, with scores if not hundreds of windows, each and every one adorned with a flower box. A man stood at the gleaming mahogany and crystal glass doors sporting a top hat and a black and yellow striped waistcoat (which made him look a bit like a Bumble Bee actually but a very smart Bumble Bee nonetheless).
We drove an ageing but immaculate Jaguar XJ6 in those days which we were unashamedly quite proud of actually. Having started with nothing and worked so hard all our lives. Never even a single week to spare for a holiday. So we were quite happy to splash out a little for once on an undoubtedly expensive room and probably an equally expensive meal at this posh establishment. We arrived in style and were both grinning like Cheshire cats.
The doorman walked over and opened then held open my car door. I flicked the boot release catch before alighting and announcing in my impeccable French “Bonjour Monsieur. Je voudrais une salle pour le soir, s’il vous plais.”
In perfect English came the response “I am sorry. This iz not an 'otel.”
Not the reply I expected. I suspected that Bumble Bee hadn’t heard me properly and so repeated my request.
The same reply “I am sorry. This iz not an 'otel.”
Bumble Bee didn’t seem too keen on elucidating. I like elucidating. Amongst other things. Clearly though this man either wouldn’t or couldn’t. So I thought I’d help him. The old ten Euro note trick. Usually works a treat. Gets rid of all that cotton wool in the ol’ lug ‘oles. I reach into my jacket pocket, extract my wallet with a flourish and peeled out a ten Euro bank note. At the same time I thought I’d show willing by reaching into the trunk of my car and lifting out our heavy (ask my wife why!) overnight case.
Bumble Bee’s eye’s lit up and he deftly plucked the bank note from my fingers. Now we’re getting somewhere I thought to myself.
“I am sorry. This iz not an 'otel.” Bumble Bee wasn’t giving up.
“Yes it is!” I admonished. “It says so. Right over there. Above the door in metre high letters.” By this time I was bouncing up and down on my heels like a demented Zebedee on his spring. Pointing and gesticulating wildly in the general direction of the building’s magnificent carved façade. A few curious local pedestrians were beginning to slow or even stop to hear what all the fuss was about.
“Non.” Bumble Bee replied with a wry smile.
“Oui, il est!” (“Yes, it is!”) I admonished again but now with menace in my voice.
“Non! It iz not an 'otel it iz ze, how you call it? Ze Town Hall.”
Bumble Bee then started turning as if to walk away. He hadn’t rotated upon his heels by more than thirty degrees before I had whisked the ten Euros out of his grasp though!
Struth. What chance do us refugees stand if the locals don’t even understand their own language?
I’ve finished linguistics now.
Pour le jour de toute façon.
(For the day anyway)