I am fluent in English and Awesome, conversational in Funny and Star Wars and what might be termed “menu only” in French; in that I know how to order multiple food/drink items and ask how much things are.
This really isn’t a very good showing, as I studied French for five year at school. Mostly because the French students got to go to New Caledonia or France (alternate years) and the Japanese students got to go to Tokyo, which didn’t interest me and still doesn’t. I wouldn’t turn down a free trip but there are at least ten other Asian destinations I would pick first.
Anyway, in high school I scored the New Caledonia year. It was big fun. But it would also be more than twelve years before I ended up making it to France proper. This happened on the weekend.
Day one was painful. The first few encounters (checking in, paying eight euro for a beer by the Seine) involved fluent English spoken by busy people who probably aren’t interested in waiting for me to dust off something hidden in the back of my brain that I haven’t used in more than a decade.
However that first night we encountered someone who was interested. The classic ‘I understand you perfectly well but I am going to wait for you to mangle your order so I can laugh at you later’ French waiter.
I complied. Fully.
So that first night we had two entrees, some pastis, about five carafes of cheap wine, no main course and then the waiter pressured us into ordering the dessert du jour. (I had to do the same thing when I was waitressing at university. Otherwise it gets thrown out.) I didn’t mind. I had bungled the food order before we got to the mains so we didn’t have to feel too guilty about it. It also turned out to be the best dessert of my life with the possible exception of my brother’s Krispy Kreme wedding cake or mum’s Christmas ice cream if I don’t help her make it and completely fuck it up.
Okay, so the next day at breakfast I managed to work out in French that the place we were at was all out of croissants and so we ordered bread, coffee and orange juice.
During the course of the day, wandering the city and taking the metro, different ‘memory bubbles’ started to emerge. Somehow just listening to French being spoken all around me had knocked my old textbook off my mental shelf. This was the textbook by the way. Sorry it’s blurry but I can only assume/hope it’s out of print.
I distinctly remember the module where we learnt how to ask and answer what we did on the weekend. To Australians, the French options seemed truly ridiculous. “On the weekend my friends and I went for a walk”. “On the weekend my friends and I had a picnic.”
None of us had been on a picnic since we were six and it was mandated by the primary school. At least then there were emus to harass.
Who were these strange French perverts who went on picnics with their friends as teenagers?
Parisians, apparently. Check it out. You’d picnic more if you could picnic here. It was starting to make a bit more sense. ‘Picnic’ can actually just be ‘gather in a public space with friends’. Food will be involved at some stage. Novacastrians had the beach and large backyards for that.
So I started to actively try to recall basic phrases. They were in there somewhere. Maybe those five years hadn’t been a complete waste? By the end of day two the combination of being immersed in the language and the activation of my Australian hyper-competitiveness (I must not be shit at this like we apparently are at all international sports now) was starting to get me somewhere.
Outdoor advertisements were beginning to make sense to me now. No, that’s not true… French ads are weird and creepy and I refuse to believe they improve purchase intent in any possible way. They’re positively third world. But at least I could read what they were ‘selling’.
On day three I bookmarked babelfish on my Blackberry. I had recalled my “we are going to”, “we would like”, “we are looking for” but there was the problem of those troublesome nouns! This way, I could look up the noun I was after on my phone wherever we are, then drop it into a crudely formed, ready-made sentence.
By the last day, I was getting good enough to consider myself graduated from “menu French” to “very basic travel French” which is basically the same except it includes asking for directions, asking how much something is and telling someone what floor you are on in a hotel. It also occurred to me that you really only need about fifteen key phrases when on holiday and they all concern themselves with buying or consuming. I made a mental note to learn these phrases in another language (Swedish at the time of writing) before the next foreign holiday.
Unfortunately, only learning how to ‘acquire’ things or ‘locate a place to acquire things’ has a tendency to limit your interactions to waitstaff and retailers. These people have a vested interest in understanding you. It was time to hunt a bigger fish. A local.
So there we are on the last day, James’s birthday, and we are celebrating here:
This is Bar Ourcq, one of my sister’s suggestions and my absolute favourite place to ‘acquire’ booze that we went to on the trip.
The way it works is this: It’s a teeny little bar right on the Canal St Martin. They serve you drinks in plastic cups or jugs, you grab a chaise longue and sit out by the canal. It’s like a DIY beach resort! And brilliant. And as far as we can tell it was off the tourist track (ours was the only disgusting foreign language we heard).
We got there early, per Tam’s suggestion, in order to bag ourselves a deckchair. This was a good thing, too, because we weren’t the only ghouls loitering on a Sunday afternoon waiting for the bar to open and all the deckchairs gone in about seven minutes.
A few hours and a light sunburn later we were ready to leave. But what to do with the deckchairs? It seemed bad form to just leave them as we had taken them out of the bar ourselves. But it also seemed even worse form to take them back… That would be mean spirited in the eyes of all the people sitting on the ground, dangling their feet into the canal for some reason. We also didn’t want to cause some sort of ‘too many seagulls, only one french fry’ situation, either.
We would have to select our own deckchair recipients. And THIS meant speaking in complete French sentences to the two lovely young women sitting on the canal near us. (If I was going to be generous, I might as well be fucking gallant at the same time.)
Hence, the highlight of my disastrous French-speaking odyssey was -perhaps appropriately- on our last afternoon.
I get out of the chair. James starts to pick up our bags. I walk over to the young women (maybe a year younger than me). “Excuse moi, mademoiselles.”
They look up at me with that look of impending horror that pretty girls get on their face when males talk to them in bars. (Ladies, you’ve got that one wrong!)
Pause for effect/to see if they are going to say something. They don’t. I continue.
“Nous partons. Vous voulez les chaises longues?”
Ta-daa! That truly, truly basic exchange (like term one of the first year of high school) led to instant agreement, an explosion of thank yous and then some other crap in French that I did not understand a single fucking word of. They leapt up, thanked me, moved to the chairs and off James and I went.
Actually it was the explosion of other crap in French that I was most pleased with. There is no way I sounded/will ever sound like a native speaker, but the crap explosion means they made certain assumptions about my French proficiency. Assumptions that are clearly, blindingly in error, but I take them as a badge that over the five days, through persistent effort (much to the horror of at least three waiters), I pulled myself up from “menu French” to “just slightly above menu French to such an extent that I can trick -then immediately disappoint- the locals”.
And it felt good.
Can’t wait for round two.