We were in a holiday home in France, the owners only spoke French, we only spoke English. But that hardly seemed to matter. It was a beautiful house with a wonderful garden and the owners, who lived in the house next door, seemed very friendly.
We didn’t have a situation, at all. The situation, that we didn’t have, was that both sides wanted to be sophisticated without the necessary, as the French would say, je ne sais quois.
I was on the trip with two people who actually can speak fluent French, but both of them are shy. I, however, know just enough French to be truly dangerous. I found myself going to the bakery every morning and ordering the bread for the day. After a few days the ladies in the bakery would shout, in French, “he’s here”. So everyone could come and listen while I butchered their beautiful language. To be fair, as everyone kept saying, at least I was trying. Something that would only encourage me into the situation that I am about to describe.
We were invited to afternoon tea by the house’s owners. They obviously thought that this was the appropriate thing to do for English guests. We walked in to the host’s house and it had a barrel of beer on tap. This was mentioned specifically to me.
We were asked about drinks we might like. I remembered the beer barrel that had just been mentioned (it stuck in my mind somehow). I was the first person to be asked the question, I felt that things were on my side, but no. Everyone else settled for cups of tea or water.
Once people had sat down, we discovered there was cake and macarons to go with our drinks, and the scene was set. We had two fluent French speakers on our side, and me who can just about remember some things from when I learned French at 12 and my mum and my daughter who know about the same amount of French as each other (although my mum has been trying to improve since this incident).
The owner’s entourage spoke only in French, the conversation stalled.
Now, it’s fair to say, that I found the conversation (or lack of it) uncomfortable. This social embarrassment is, to me, the epitome of British character flaws. I found the embarrassment of sitting quietly and potentially not being polite by not making idle chit chat more embarrassing than the only thing I had to offer as an alternative, a story told in French by somebody who can’t really speak French.
For the sake of all that is holy, I will try and explain my fairly ambitious story in English and you will have to imagine how complicated it would be to explain in broken French. Here it is…
I started by explaining that I had been doing a lot of driving on the way there which is unusual for me (pas de typical!). And that I had taken to saying, “le chauffeur est terminée” when we arrived at our destination.
But Katherine corrected me. “Chauffeur” is not the correct French word for driver, it is the word for fireman, but specifically a fireman who keeps a train full of coal, not a fireman who puts out fires which is what we call a fireman.
(Note: Yes, I am trying to explain idiomatic French in French without any way of helping them understand the vagaries of what I’m talking about. Just think how many different contexts of the word fireman, which is two different words in French, they had to follow along with in the previous paragraph.) I continued…
Oddly enough the correct name for a driver of a car, the equivalent of our word chauffeur, not your word fireman, but our word chauffeur, in French is conducteur, which we use in English for a person who collects tickets on a train or bus.
At this point one of the French people in the room said, in perfect English, “that is an excellent story, and I must say that only an English person would have carried on with such a ridiculous story in the face of such obvious obstacles”.
“You can speak English,” I asked?
“Yes,” he replied, “I lived in Portsmouth for 20 years”.