An urban myth exists about a love that is not often spoken of, and it is that which blossoms between the English and the French. It goes something like this: the two adore each other, yet neither would be caught dead admitting it. The English love to hate on the French for their arrogance, 'old-fashionedness', and ability to get away with many things; yet they love them really, because the French are self-confident, stylish and have the added advantage of speaking a language that is very pleasing to the ear. Likewise, the French like to lament that English is taking over the world's languages, yet you will not fail to find a fascinated audience if you happen to be speaking English on the Paris metro.
I read about this ages ago and filed it quietly at the back of my mind, deciding only to ressurrect it at desperate times when my French-speaking skills failed me. After all, my smug self reasoned, I was an English-speaking girl...surely that meant I could charm the French, yes?
Several fraught trips later - to the post office, bank and supermarket - I came to the baffling conclusion that my charms were not working on the relevant people in these places, which pretty much formed the bain of my existence in France. Sure, empirical observation showed that on the whole, young French people were eager to show off what little English they knew, whereas older folk were almost unfriendly if they so much as caught a whiff of 'English' about your person. I quickly learned that slow, hesitant French on my part was better than a pleading, 'parlez-vous anglais?' because that had done me no favours. That was two years ago.
You'd think I'd have learned my lesson since then, but apparently I was back to my old tricks two weeks ago whilst in Paris for Bastille day. Having arrived late the night before, I woke up that morning filled with excitement about what the day held. It could have been because the following day was my birthday, which not since my fourteenth had I been more excited at the prospect of growing a year older. I languished in bed for several moments, mentally picking out what to wear, and fancying myself as a bona fide 'frenchie' on account of the freshly baked croissants I knew were waiting downstairs. A bath and fifteen minutes of fruitless, frantic searching later, I came to the uncomfortable realisation that I'd packed a toothbrush...and no toothpaste. Also, nestling indifferently amongst the clothes in my suitcase were hair and body creams...and no deodorant. Talk about personal hygiene doing a runner at crucial moments. Luckily, the night before, I'd spotted a small, cramped shop that seemed to be selling everything from ironing boards to canned sardines round the corner from me. This was to be the scene of a somewhat embarrassing morning:
'Bonjour!' I more or less shouted at the man arranging his wares outside the shop.
'Bonjour,' he replied, suspiciously I thought, perhaps a little put off by my forced cheeriness.
'Um..excusez-moi, monsieur, vous avez un - erm..um..err..' my eyes widened in panic as I suddenly realised that I could not for the life of me recall the French word for either toothpaste or deodorant.
The man peered at me, impatience now a major feature on his face. And I could have sworn he knew what was coming before I opened my mouth and asked desperately, 'parlez-vous anglais?'
He stiffened. 'Non!'
Oops. Bad move.
We stared at each other helplessly for a beat, although by now I was convinced this geezer was enjoying my discomfort. I abandoned all talk, and did what any self-respecting girl would do: I raised one arm, and with the other made vigorous circular motions. This was not how I'd envisaged my first foray back into French society: standing in the 9th arrondissement flashing my armpit at a strange man in an attempt to buy deodorant.
His eyes lit up in comprehension. 'Ah..déodorant!'
What? You mean it's the same word in French? This was the first in a disturbing number of incidents that showed me just how rusty my language skills had become...
As he rang my purchase through the till, I had an overwhelming desire to demand why he had pretended not to understand my perfectly choreographed effort in communicating that I wanted deodorant? Only a mildly amusing fear that I would be given the classic Gallic shrug stopped me in my tracks, as I meekly thanked him and slunk off to the hotel, tail between the legs.
'Bonne journée!' he said scathingly as I exited the shop, having made another faux pas by not wishing him a nice day at the end of our transaction. Yes, yes have a rollicking day too, amigo.
On an informal level, it is interesting to note that the French feel genuine pleasure when you get their language right. (Elsewhere on this blog, I have spoken of a similar pride at hearing my non-Ghanaian friends learn the basics of introducing themselves in my mother tongue, Twi.) Nevertheless, it is undeniable that they are a people that mercilessly commit a political gaffe by making jokes about the accents of Canadians, French-speaking Belgians, people from the Caribbean Islands, Africans, Tahitians etc. For example, it is common on French television to have subtitles on programmes or news stories where someone may be speaking French with a non-standard accent, as though viewers may struggle to understand if there were none. Compare this with a BBC news story, where, no matter how thickly accented a person's English, no subtitles would be provided.
Whereas the English language happily borrows foreign words into everyday speak - déjà vu, frisson, schadenfreude, karaoke, etc - each new word admitted into the French language does not officially exist unless it has been green-lit by the Académie Française. However, as everyone knows, when you're learning a language it is important to know its formal parameters, but perhaps, more necessary is the ability to apply it within a 'street context.' When you're haggling at a market somewhere in a French banlieue (suburb), let me tell you, no one cares that you can conjugate the verb être down to its subjunctive form. France's young and trendy certainly know how to informally incorporate - and sometimes abuse - English words, and the French Academy can kiss their delectable derrière. I mean words like le shampooing and le chewing gum?! It's enough to give the panel apoplexy.
But, whatever you do, remember that in a foreign land, you can never offend if you at least try to learn the language. At most, you will give many of the locals amusing comical moments as you attempt to speak - massacre, maybe? - their language, rather than beginning sentences with this preamble: 'do you speak English?'.
I still couldn't resist a last dig at the French though, as I went through Charles de Gaulle Airport. Having attained a personal feat of packing light in a cute little hand luggage for the length of the trip, I breezed through the airport, superior as you will, and was soon in a duty free shop critically assessing the rows of wines. An attractive shop assistant in a well-cut suit approached me.
'Je peux vous aider, madame?' Oh yes, monsieur, you certainly can help me.
I flashed him a disarming smile. 'Do you speak English...?'