Totally Stuck for Words

Most village markets in France are orderly, traditional and predictable. Sensibly dressed women arrive with shopping baskets, older men often sport a beret or cap to ward off the morning chill. There will be stalls selling vegetables, a cheese van, a saucisson stall, a pan- Asian fast food van, to which the French flock – vive la différence – and perhaps a cake stall, featuring this season’s walnuts. And so when the knife sharpening man turned up at the weekly market in Monpazier, dressed in colourful clothes and working under the old covered hall, I was instantly drawn to his stall. I asked him if I could take his photo, although the conditional and polite part of this question, the ‘could I or may I’, suddenly escaped my memory.  He happily obliged despite these omissions and mentioned that if someone takes his photo without asking first, he would not give his permission. As my mind slowly processed this information, I noticed the roughly painted anarchist sign on his leather apron.

And then it happened. I stupidly inquired, in my primitive French, which is always stuck in the present tense, about why he wore this sign. I may have simply asked, ‘Pourqui’, while pointing.

He replied passionately, rapidly and fairly vocally, why he was proud to wear this sign. I could follow bits of his response: there was mention of the new French President Macron and then he concluded, “But you don’t understand, do you. You can’t respond, can you. Can you speak?” I’m standing there paralysed and the words won’t come. “Je… je… je... ” A crowd is gathering behind me and he continues his anarchist rave. “Je… Je.” And I wanted to say, “OuiJe comprende ” or something agreeable, like “d’accord”, just so I could run away and save face but I feel like I’ve just left the frontal lobotomy ward.” Je…Je...”. I want to agree that the handsome Macron bloke has turned out to be a huge disappointment, so much for middle ground, but what can you expect from a former investment banker, and do you mind pouring me a glass of wine even though it’s only 10.30 am, because I really need one now. But nothing comes out of my mouth, nothing, until eventually I mumble je suis désolé and I’m feeling like a total fuckwit. I haven’t even had time to get out Mt T’s favourite opening line and gap filler, “Excusez-moi, mon français est très mal” to which I usually add behind his shoulder, “you mean c’est merde”, c’est tres merde.”

Salut

The knife sharpening man is laughing now, enjoying his wine, probably not the first for the day, and so we exchange drinking salutations, salut,  santé, salute, chin chin, na zdrowie proost, sláinte, cheers ( mate) and so on. It’s an exchange of sorts.

Travellers, like me, who have a smattering of French, tend to stick to simple conversations, which hover around known contexts and commerce such as buying food or goods, and include a working grasp of salutations and courtesies, all limited to the present tense with an occasional flirtation with the simple past tense and with an excellent grasp of nouns but not so many irregular verbs. Is it possible to have a real conversation without a working knowledge of the multi- tiered tenses that we use everyday without thinking, the past perfect and imperfect tenses, the future and historic tenses, all woven together, like a language knitting pattern, with fancy stitches that include the conditional, the imperative, the reflexive and the subjunctive moods used in past tenses, stitched up with  the gerund and embroidered with the nuances of language that involve irony, idiom and cultural understandings? I think not. I stand accused, sir. I would love to sit down with you and have a chat and a wine, but I can’t. Well not in French anyway. Cheers.

 

27 thoughts on “Totally Stuck for Words”

  1. Oh! Francesca, quel régal d’avoir eu quelques verres de vin avec l’aiguisoir. Je ne pouvais pas supporter la diatribe mais l’expérience serait inestimable.
    À votre santé
    Pierre

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    1. I know you would have sat down with that man, Pierre, you, like me, would also be kicking yourself later and feeling like an idiot. I might continue calling you Pierre from now on, though I guess its too hot up there to wear a nice black beret.

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  2. Yes it is frustrating not to be able to communicate the thoughts you have in another language. I often would like to enter into a full conversation/discussion and leave the present tense behind (literally) and be descriptive in my expression . Allora. It is not so easy.

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    1. No, the present tense is a curse at times. And yet I hear so many people claim to have a good grasp of a foreign language when in fact they have only enough language to get by in the present tense, which is like sounding like a two year old. It is frustrating . Sometimes I slip into Italian, then translate from Italian to French. It works on rare occasions but often just adds to the confusion.

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  3. Yes, that’s the one thing I miss when travelling. To be really able to talk to people would open up som any more windows on the world. I cherish the few real conversations I’ve had when travelling: in Myanmar about the military, in Lisbon about racism, in Beijing about immigrants, in Languedoc about farming and the EU. Too few conversations with strangers over so many years.

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    1. Indeed. I have had some great conversations along the way, and particularly in Myanmar about the Generals but honest conversation also about Aung San Suu Kyi , who also lives in the same street as the generals, about Hindusim in Bali and about Mao’s place in history with Chinese friends in Sichuan, But all of these great conversations were in English. I love being able to chat with locals and am finding my lack of French skills very limiting.

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    1. Not sure about how to translate Crikey, Jan. Its such a quaint word and one i should re=adopt I think, along with Gosh. Now that I am entering a respectable old age and wearings sensible shoes, I should leave those other colourful phrases ( the ones I have to pay for in the swear jar when with grandchildren) behind,
      I’ll check out Anarchist man again today at Le Marche`

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    1. yes, so true. No problem communicating with beautiful Indians, though the many Indians I came across in Kerala happily switch in and out of English. Speaking of gestures and body language, my son Jack , is profoundly deaf and so as a family, we all use sign language and not just when with him and his partner. It is a handy communication tool and one I resort to in many countries.
      I can communicate well enough in French, just not have a deep conversation.

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  4. Oh, looking at that wonderfully warm smile you captured methinks you both did just fine 🙂 ! Yep, I only have school-French, travel French and restaurant French also but hands, knees and bumps-a-daisy have always brought forth an agreeable result! Except somewhere near the Opera in Paris when I once attempted to buy a very pretty swimsuit from a very haughty boutique. ‘Parlez-vous anglais ‘etc brought forth a back turned towards me, ‘Je voudrais acheter . . . ‘ an almost spitting comment in clear English ‘We would not have anything in your size, Madam . . . ‘ [Oh I was size 12 at that stage!] . . . ‘Please leave’ . . . . No problem!!

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    1. Gesture and facial expression are so important in communication- probably making up 90 per cent of the message.
      Oh that nasty little french shopkeeper! It’s a wonder you didn’t pull out a F..off madamoisellle moment. Before I headed off to France in 1985, I was presented with a list of very handy phrases by a friend, the French teacher, where we were both working at the time. It was a list of curses- very handy- vous merde was one we warmed to immediately when negotiating Parisian traffic.
      One of the stances I adopt when entering a haughty boutique, anywhere, is to remind myself of the lowly shopkeeper’s wage, and lowly state of education, and take pity.

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