French or faux pas
I’m a lake owner, gite runner and llama farmer. I throw sweetcorn into the lakes through holes in the ice during winter, scrub toilets in summer and shovel llama poo all year round. But I’m also an English graduate, an editor and a writer. I’m articulate, literate, coherent, circumlocutory – OK, verbose. I love being witty and playing with words. I have a vast vocabulary. In English, anyway. The weird thing about being an ex-pat is getting used to being a bumbling moron in the foreign tongue. You’re reduced to the language ability of a small child. There are loads of words you don’t know. So, for example, instead of saying to the mechanic at the garage, “My electronic dashboard has stopped working,” you have to go with: ‘It does not work, the big electric thing at the front of the car that tells you your speed and how much petrol you have and what time it is’. And if you could say simply “I need an application form for a student bus pass please” instead of “Please may I have the particular piece of paper where I need to write lots of information so that my eldest son who will be starting at lycée in September can have the special ticket that means he can travel cheaply on the weekly bus to Gueret,” well, life would be a doddle.
A recent example. I made a phone call to tell France Telecom that the telephone cable had come loose between some of the poles on our driveway. The great metal hook that was meant to hold it in place was swinging in the wind and threatening to clonk us on the head as we walked up and down our drive.
It was tricky. I finally got through to the right department after three or four tries over a month or two. Off I went.
“Our cable has fallen down.”
“You want to cancel your account?”
“No. Our cable has fallen down.”
“The telephone cable has fallen off the posts. It is dangerous.”
“Ah. It is in the road?”
“No, but it is loose and might hit our car or on the head my children.”
“It has fallen off three posts and turned orange?”
“No, just one. And it is still black. Please come and mend it.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to cancel your account? Please?”
And so conversations ebb and flow between the surreal and the frustrating. And I have pretty good French. Face to face I don’t have too much trouble communicating. Body language and hand gestures are wonderful things. But the phone is dangerous. Conversations can easily veer into unknown territory and leave both parties wondering what the heck is going on. This can be handy at times, for example when cold callers are trying to sell you something unidentifiable and you’re in the middle of tea. These days we just reply chirpily along the lines of: “My uncle is a potato and I keep croissants under the bed. Now I must sing to my onions. Hello please,” and put the phone down. Works like a charm.
Here are a few of our worst faux pas – I think. Who knows what horrors we’ve come actually out with completely unawares as we merrily destroy the French language during conversations and leave a trail of puzzled people behind us.
To teacher: Ruadhri was absent from school because of an annoying pencil case. ( I used trousse = pencil case, instead of toux = cough)
To butcher: Please may I have some bear meat for my dog. (Ours = bear, instead of os = bone)
To chemist: I need a box of flies because I have a cold. (mouches = flies instead of mouchoirs = tissues)
To another teacher: Please excuse Caiti from sport today because she has tortoised her ankle.(tortue = tortoise instead of tordu = twisted)
To stranger in shop who asked where we came from: We used to dress ourselves in Ireland. (s’habiller = to dress instead of habiter = live)
To café owner: I think I left my purple ladder here yesterday. Did you find it? (échelle = ladder instead of écharpe = scarf)
To a neighbour: We have lots of animals on our farm – llamas, goats, rabbits, chickens, a dog and a prostitute. (I actually used the correct word for a female cat, namely chatte, but it is a term to avoid as it means a slut or a particular part of the female anatomy.)
I put the village idiot out of a job when we moved here but luckily the French tolerate us and haven’t had us committed to the nearest asylum. They really do appreciate it when you try to speak their complicated language. Quite often they’ll reply in their best school Anglais – admittedly only after you’ve tied yourself in knots and allowed them to feel quietly superior – but they do it.
So don’t be put off from giving your French a go when you come to France. You can’t do any worse than me!