lundi 20 septembre 2010
M is for Mind your language
Il parle francais comme une vache espagnole — He speaks broken French
Gavin believes that when in France you should always speak French. If I can get away with it, I’ll speak in English.
One holiday, we rented a lovely apartment in the South of France. When we arrived, I could see trouble looming. Artistically arranged on the steps leading up to the door of our holiday home were geraniums. In terracotta pots. There was one at the edge of every open step. I think I knew I should have done something about it immediately, but I didn’t. Sure enough, on the second day, Gavin knocked one of the plants off its step. The pot duly broke, but luckily only into two pieces.
We examined the fragments and decided that, with the help of some superglue, we could make the pot as good as new. So off we went to the nearest quincaillerie [ironmongers]. When we entered, the two old men and a nun, who were sitting on chairs just inside the door, smiled at us and chirped ‘Bonjour’.
Gavin went to the counter to ask for the superglue. Problem was, he didn’t know the French word. So he did some mimes of sticking two pieces of flowerpot together. The proprietor looked at him in increasing bewilderment. I wanted to just launch into English, but that would have spoilt the fun.
Eventually, one of the men sitting in the shop could stand it no longer. He looked at Gavin; he looked at the proprietor. He said two words: ‘Le superglue’.
A friend had a similar experience on holiday. Her husband, whose French was, to say the least, limited, caused a shop’s staff and customers to gather around him, fascinated, as he tried to convey that he wanted to buy a mousetrap. They all tried to guess what he wanted. They entered into the spirit of his quest and ran around bringing him things like clothes pegs and lavatory brushes — a bit like Supermarket Sweep meets Give us a Clue.
Incidentally, isn’t that the problem with the French you learnt at school? It doesn’t equip you to live in France and cope with a search for superglue or to say such vital things as ‘My boiler is making some rather strange gurgling noises’, ‘How often do you have to give the worming powder to the cats?’ or ‘Do you know a good piano tuner?’.
The nuances of a language can be tricky to pick up and some words are so similar you just can’t help getting in a muddle. I once wanted to try on a pair of shoes, but instead Gavin told the bemused shopkeeper that I wanted to clean the shoes in their window. ‘Essuyer’ mean to clean or wipe, and ‘essayer’ to try on. An easy mistake. (The shoes were very nice, by the way.)
Another time, while in a big store in Paris, I needed some tissues, so asked where I could find ‘tissues’ — and was directed towards huge swathes of cloth. ‘Tissu’ means fabric or material.
And recently a friend here was puzzled when she tried to order logs for the fire and the vendor kept telling her she’d got the wrong number and needed the baker’s. She was apparently asking for French-style yule logs —the edible kind.
And not forgetting the experience someone had when she wanted a receipt at a motorway toll booth. On requesting a ‘recette’, she was asked whether she fancied ‘tarte aux pommes’ or ‘steak au poivre’. She had actually asked for a recipe.
Then there is the problem of where to put your adjectives. Before or after the noun can have completely different meanings. Someone who is your ‘cher ami’ is a good friend; your ‘ami cher’, however, is anything but as it means they cost you a fortune — presumably they like to drink a bit of wine, have the occasional night on the town and buy a few pairs of shoes. If you describe a man as a ‘homme grand’, you mean he is tall and well built; say he’s a ‘grand homme’ and you think he is an important chap. Or is it the other way round? Anyway, you get the picture.
Maybe it’s the cap he wears, but when out and about Gavin is regularly asked for directions. The enquirers range from French visitors to Russian lorry drivers; the occasional lost Britons are generally quite relieved when he answers them in English.
And being of the Imperial generation, we are only just beginning to feel at home with Metric, and no longer ask for enough steak haché (mince) to last several weeks. We slipped up the other day, though, when filling in a form, and stated confidently that we each weighed around 300kg, which works out at 60 stone. The company came back to us, saying they believed we had made a ‘petit erreur’ (small mistake). Either that, or it’s definitely time to cut back on the steak haché.