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Pardon My French

29th September 2017

I cannot speak French. This is something of a daily challenge, because I’m currently living in France for a year with my husband Keith and our three small children. Keith can speak the language after spending time here as a child; and the children are ‘immersed’ in French school, where the theory is that after a few months, the babble of incomprehensible language surrounding them will transform into recognisable words and sentences.

In preparation for this year I decided to try to learn as much French as I could. My intentions were good but my internal clock was, as always, set to low comedy, and so, despite myself, the only things that stuck were stupid. For instance, I came across a fantastic tongue twister that means, in English: ‘Dido dined, they say, on the enormous back of an enormous turkey’. In French it trips off the tongue thus: ‘Dido dina dit-on du dos dodu d’un dodo dindon.’ I so fell in love with this phrase that I put it to a little melody and earwormed myself for weeks.  It’s deeply embedded now, although useless even as a party trick, because whenever I say it to a French person, my accent is so bogan that it is incomprehensible.

Next I came across a French-lesson book full of the most ridiculous sample sentences. They were so delicious that I had to learn them.  ‘He has retained his vigour throughout the years.’ ‘I only buy beige stockings.’ ‘Poor little thing. She is cross-eyed.’ My favourite (and my daughter’s too) is ‘Hush. Let’s not be indiscreet.’ Chut! Ne soyons pas indescret!

As you can imagine this prep has not served me particularly well for everyday life (except for the last phrase) but I am stumbling through. I’ve realised that if one is prepared to look like an idiot (I acclimatised myself to this some decades ago) then giving English words a ‘Frenchy’ spin and using a lot of performance can get you to a place of understanding.

Yesterday I was at the pharmacy looking for Metamucil. (Some members of the family have insides that are yet to catch up to our new carb-heavy diet. You get a baguette! You get a baguette! Everybody gets a baguette!)

I looked up a couple of keywords on Google translate. ‘Powder’. ‘Fibre’. I practiced in my mind, entered the pharmacy and launched in. ‘Est-ce que vous avez le ‘Metamucil’?’

Blank stare.

‘Est-ce que vous avez le POUDRE de FIBRE pour le constipation?’

I was intent on making it clear that I was not looking for a suppository. French medical care is notorious for applying medication up the bum for every eventuality from conjunctivitis to male pattern balding.

I turned to theatre. ‘Le poudre,’ I said. ‘Le boisson pour au-jourd hui,’ I mimed drinking, ‘a demain, a demain, a demain…’ I chugged back several imaginary beverages. Drinking the powder today, and tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow…

‘Ah oui,’ said the pharmacist. I grinned with triumph and we haltingly established that she would order my medicine in. I am proud of myself, but must face the possibility that the pharmacist believes that I have constipation due to alcoholism and she has ordered in a specialised suppository.

At the supermarket early on,  I tried to apologise to the man in the queue behind me as I fumbled through my euros, looking for correct change.

‘Desolee,’ I said. ‘Je viens d’Australie!’ And then I tried to add a little self-deprecating flourish. ‘Je suis un con!’ Later, I found that I’d got ‘I’m from Australia’ right but instead of ‘I am an idiot’ I had said ‘I am a cunt’ which may be true but I had hoped to keep that a secret from the supermarket teller for a while.

I tried to find fish fingers there (don’t judge, we require a lot of comfort food right now) but they weren’t where I expected them, so I asked the man working in the frozen food section.

‘Est-ce que vous avez le poisson de…de..’ I waggled my fingers at him hopefully.

‘Pardon,’ he said,

‘Poisson avec…du…pour…’ I pushed on. I waved my fingers more enthusiastically. Something clicked for him and he said ‘Ah, oui – battonets de poisson?’ He pointed in the right direction, and I found them. Success! ‘Battonets’ means ‘fingers’! I committed that one to inner thesaurus. But later, Keith said that it doesn’t; it just means ‘sticks’ of some kind; so my jazz hands were just pointless and bizarre. The man must really have wondered why I was adding such a flourish to my request. ‘That Australian is a cunt,’ I imagined him saying to his colleagues, ‘but man, she’s got pizzazz.’

Just yesterday (same supermarket, I fear a warning picture of me in the tea-room is imminent), the checkout lady couldn’t find a price on my cherry tomatoes. I knew they were sixty-nine cents, and I searched my mind for how to translate the number. French maths is awful - the word for ninety, for instance, is ‘quartre vingt dix’, or ‘four twenty ten’. Sixty-nine, sixty-nine, I mused, and the answer suddenly appeared. Of course! It’s a favourite Jilly Cooper racy French-ism! The Cotswolds Casanova Rupert Campbell-Black suggests (and performs) soixante-neuf frequently, probably while reading a copy of Horse and Hound at the same time.

I practiced internally. ‘Excuse-moi, madame, souixante-neuf, oui? D’accord?’ At the last minute, I thought better of it. If the conversation went wrong, I had no way of explaining why I was sexually propositioning the Intermarche teller.

It’s a minefield.

The other mistake I keep making is that the phrase ‘c’est ca’ which means ‘that’s it’ has lodged unhelpfully in my mind as a sort of all-purpose ‘no worries’. ‘C’est ca’ pops out at bad moments. For instance, I was trying to write at the cafe in the square of our little medieval village (appalling coffee, amazing people-watching) when a cat leapt onto my back. I yelped in my cool, laidback way, and the waitress apologetically removed the cat. ‘C’est ca! C’est ca!’ I said enthusiastically. ‘That’s it! That’s it!’ I did it to a woman that stumbled into me on the street as well. ‘Sorry,’ she said, and ‘That’s it! That’s it!’ I assured her. Way to make friends, lady.

I am developing a sort of mode of communcation I think of as sort of ‘Franglish Theatre’. It’s a combination of English, French and mime.  I’m adding mouth sounds after watching a useful YouTube clip on how to ‘fake French’. Swear, make weird noises with your mouth, mumble. And I like the French slang word ‘bref’, or ‘in brief’ as in ‘to cut a long story short…’

When confused, I plan to say ‘Bref; ooh la, merde….’ and then blow a lot of raspberries until the person talking to me leaves, or calls the authorities. Wish me luck! I’m off now to pick up my suppositories.

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