A seemingly straightforward mission to buy two croissants was turned into a farce by moi. The croissants were not the problem. They sat on the counter next to the till after I’d asked for them in the boulangerie/patisserie.
I was poised with a five euro note when the pastries seduced himself and he bent over to study them in the glass case.
“Un moment,” I said to Madame Pittino. She waited. I waited. Jimmy salivated. I could see his eyes burning a hole in the apple tart slices. Madame had made her way ‘round from the bread counter to the pastry counter.
“Un pomme de terre, s’il vous plait;” I requested confidently. Madame P. stood looking at me quizzically. After a moment’s thought I heard what I’d said. The translation process always has a time delay in my head, like the news anchor interviewing someone thousands of miles away. You see the interviewee listening for a few seconds more after the question has been posed before they answer. Also, what’s nestling in my head and what comes out of my mouth is not always the same thing.
“Non! Tarte au pomme!” I had asked for a potato instead of apple tart.
We have almost unfailingly been treated with patience, politeness and good humor in France.
Except for the waitress in Orléans who rolled her eyes at me when I enquired (in French) about the dish of the day. “Fish. Fish! FISH!” I would like to have known what type of fish but daren’t try her patience further. A Union Jack pin on her apron implied she spoke English but her vocabulary in this instance was limited to fish.
If she had spoken to me in French and said saumon I would have understood and ordered it instead of chicken. The salmon did look delicious on a plate in front of madame on the next table.
Oh, and then there was the young girl in the shop who, when I asked for the roast chicken I’d ordered the day before (again in French but it must have sounded like Swahili to her) said, “Combien de tranches?” I knew perfectly well what she was asking but as I cowered under her onslaught of “Combien? Combien? COMBIEN?” I experienced brain freeze.
“She’s asking me how many slices I want. I don’t want slices,” I said to Jimmy. “I want the whole thing.”
“Un poulet entier, un poulet roti.” The words finally surfaced from the cold depths of my brain and escaped. A whole, roast chicken. The shop girl must have experienced brain freeze as well and stood mutely by, not acknowledging my care-ful-ly e-nun-ci-a-ted French, until her superior finished serving another customer.
Chantal, who’d taken my order the day before and understood me perfectly, retrieved my hot roast chicken after a quick dignified exchange in French. I was so glad to flee my previous traumatizing inability to communicate that I didn’t look back to see if young mademoiselle looked suitably chastened.