Sunday, 30 August 2009


 So, there I was, on my own, over in France one autumn, to do some work on our holiday home.
As usual, having finished work and had a quick shower, I was in the quietest bar in the town having a couple of strong Belgium lagers before returning to the house to cook my supper. It is so quite this bar, especially compared with the couple of others in town, that I often wondered how it survived. Of the couple who owned it, the wife was always there serving during the day, and the husband only appeared to serve his stint in the evenings. This lead me to form the theory that perhaps he had a daytime job as I certainly couldn't see how they survive on the takings from the bar. But no, it turned out that he was always off fishing during the day, and I remained baffled.
This particular evening, there were only three or four other customers, as usual, sitting at or leaning against the bar, which the wife was tending. Her husband came in, carrying something wrapped up in paper, and came up to me opening the paper to proudly reveal a large trout. I made the appropriate response, 'Ah, trés bon,' a bit bemused as to why he had picked me to show it to, and then returned to reading my newspaper.
Once I had finished my second lager, I paid the bill, and as I was leaving I said, 'Au revoir', and then, turning as I was about to go out the door, 'Nice fish.'
At least, that's what I thought I'd said; but what I'd actually said was, 'Nice Peach!' They must have thought I was bonkers.
My mistake only came to me when I was half way home.  Although a pêcheur is a fisherman, a fish in French is not a pêche, but a poisson.
Confusing, or what? It's obviously just a dastardly plot to confuse us foreigners.

On another visit the bar was deserted, apart from the wife of the owner, so, after ordering a beer, I ended up sitting at the bar and having a conversation with her. I was feeling rather pleased with myself afterward, as she had congratulated me on my French.
By this time, there were three or four regulars propping up the bar, (which constituted a crowd for there), and I was just about to leave, having had my regulation two beers, when one of my French neighbours came in, and offered to buy me a drink. Not wishing to appear churlish, I accepted, and, feeling a little light headed from drinking on an empty stomach, attempted to carry out a conversation with him. I would probably have felt slightly self-conscious about this, (given that the other customers were not talking to each other, and therefore couldn't help but eavesdrop on every word I was saying), but by now the beer had kicked in, and I was full of Dutch courage. Anyway, I was holding up my end of the conversation quite well, only occasionally having to improvise by trying out an English word pronounced in a French way, until he asked the question, what was it that the English liked so much about France?
"The English love the French peasants," I declared confidently, (mixing up paysan with paysage), instead of, "The English love the French landscape," which is what I was trying to say.
Once again, I only realised my mistake when I was on my way home.
Mmmm...., might have to give that bar a miss for a while....

Moral: probably better to go easy on the Belgian lager when trying to speak in a foreign tongue.

Friday, 28 August 2009


Towards the end of the seventies, I was on a camping trip in France with my future wife when we discovered that our tent had started leaking at the seams. It had rained for most of the week, so action was called for.
With the help of the trusty English French Dictionary we concocted the phrase "avez vous quelque chose rendre ma tente imperméable à l'eau?" (Have you anything to make my tent waterproof), at least, that's what we hoped it meant anyway.
Later, in a huge department store, I caught the eye of one of the assistants in the hardware department and, as he approached, I stumbled out my question. He came to an abrupt halt, transfixed me with a haughty stare for several seconds, and without bothering to reply, turned his back and stalked off, every part of his posture radiating absolute distain. I waited for a while thinking that maybe he had gone to fetch something appropriate, but he never appeared again.
I suppose he could be forgiven. Talking it over later, we decided that I must have mispronounced tente as tante, and had actually asked him if he had anything I could use to waterproof my aunt!
It's a shame he didn't come up with any suggestions; my aunt could probably do with some waterproofing.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009


To completely misquote the well known Biblical phrase: 'It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for an old man to learn to speak French.'
I had been visiting France for many, years and, to my shame, had learnt only a smattering of useful phrases such as: 'A beer if you please,' and, 'Where are the toilets?'; the second question being a necessary adjunct to the first if you had used the former too freely.
As a young man and a student, 
'A beer if you please,' might have served as a pithy summation of my 'Weltanschauung', and had stood me in good stead, but the purchase of a dilapidated French holiday home in Normandy, in more recent times, meant my general ignorance of the French language would no longer suffice.
I therefore set about trying to learn to speak French, but I have made some notable blunders along the way.
Well before that though, I had already established a precedent at making a fool of myself in French.
My first sampling of the delights of France was a day trip to Paris, at the age of eighteen. Having run out of matches to light my roll ups, I consulted my English French dictionary, and then practiced for a while saying, "Une boîte d'allumettes s'il vous plâit." Having found a tobacco kiosk, I delivered my prepared line to the attractive young woman serving there, and felt rather pleased with myself when she instantly turned and retrieved a box from the display behind her. If I had left it at that, all would have been well, but, as she handed me the box, I said rather hesitantly, "Merci beaucoup," and she burst into hoots of laughter. She was laughing so much that she had difficulty in telling me how much I owed. Having paid her, I slunk away, thoroughly deflated, wondering what had been so funny.
Perhaps the reason that this incident has stuck in my memory for so long was because it remained an unsolved puzzle for over thirty years, until now that is....
Recently I came across, on a French related forum, a post by someone who had had a similar experience, and had had the answer explained to them. It seems that, in my hesitation, I had made beaucoup into two words, i.e. beau coup. That, and probably my pronunciation, had rendered my answer as:
'Thank you.' ...'Nice bottom!'
(That's the polite version, by the way.)

That my very first foray into the French language had resulted in me telling a perfect stranger that she had a nice bottom hardly boded well for my future endeavours as a French conversationalist....