A Life in a Year – 17th April, The French Language

The French are proud of their language of course and their reluctance to communicate in or even simply acknowledge English gives me the opportunity to demonstrate my fluency in everyday essentials and I had to use all of that knowledge here:

‘Vin blanc sil vous plait’

‘Vin rouge sil vous plait’

‘bier grande sil vous plait’

‘bier grande vite’.  And so on.

Now the French don’t especially like making things easy for visitors and sometimes I get the distinct impression that they would rather not have us in their country at all and a restaurant in La Rochelle on 17th April 2007 was no exception as it was clear that they could barely tolerate us. 

The menu was exclusively in French which made meal selection a little challenging but we were not put off by this because we have tackled menus in Latvian, Croatian and Polish and by comparison this was a piece of cake.  I attempted some multilingual conversation with the waiter but he was clearly not impressed and I gave up therefore when he announced with the hint of a sneer that passed for an apology that there were no mussels left tonight. 

We ordered an alternative and then we had an incident over condiments.  He didn’t provide us with any and forced us to request them in what little french we knew while he kept up a bulwark against international relations while steadfastly refusing to understand us.  We got passed salt and pepper but got stuck on vinegar.  He totally refused to comprehend and brought us a selection of various sauce accompaniments but never any vinegar.

I am convinced he knew exactly what we wanted but was enjoying taking the piss.  We finished our meal and left and I made a point of collecting up every last cent of change and didn’t leave him a tip and we agreed that we wouldn’t be dining there again this week.

One way around this problem is to rehearse in advance what you want to say.  On another visit to France, this time to Boulogne in 2009 we needed some postage stamps so I rehearsed over and again ‘quatre poste sil vous plait’ and by the time we found a shop was practically word perfect.  The problem with this of course is that having impressed with the opening sentence then the shop assistant replies immediately in impenetrable French and the only two options are to nod vigorously and hope you are making the appropriate response or just stand there flapping and looking a complete twat!  I did a combination of the two and it must have worked because I got the stamps and they were the correct ones for postcards to England.

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