Tag Archives: French language

My French Connection

Hi ho, hi ho,

It’s off to France we go.

With a hop and a skip,

And a tunnel train trip,

We’re off to Wimereux.

It was actually four weeks ago that we went but I couldn’t replace go with went and make it rhyme.

On the verge of giving up on my French lessons, I remarked to himself before the trip, ‘I’m hopeless at French, I can’t remember anything. What’s the point of learning if you can’t remember?’

I’m the dummy in my ill-advised advanced class who tries to keep a low profile and goes home to look up the same words and phrases over and over again, then crams for the next week and writes little cheat notes I hide in my notebook. I was going to give my brain one last chance to redeem itself on a five day trip to the French coast, not far from where the train spits us out in our car.

I got on surprisingly well at hotel check-in leaving himself dumbfounded as I spoke in secret code with the receptionist.

‘What’s happening?’

‘I’ve got the key, the lift is over there and we’re on the third floor, room 307,’ and I strode off self-importantly. I gained confidence with each shop and restaurant encounter, even responding in French when I was spoken to in English.

My only disappointment was at tourist information where I asked about local walks speaking politely in French. The assistant threw a stream of unintelligible gobble-de-gook at me even after I asked her – in French – to speak more slowly. I grabbed the map she’d been jabbing at for reasons only known to her and left, bemused at her insensitivity working as she was at a seaside holiday resort close to the tunnel and ferry port of Calais, one of England’s main entries to France.

Perhaps she just doesn’t care for les anglais. Not that I’m English but she wouldn’t know that as we didn’t chit-chat and exchange pleasantries. I wasn’t able to tell her that my father had served in the American Army, landed at Normandy, fought for and was wounded for her country and she had better buck her ideas up.

beach toys
No sand castles in France – only sand châteaux

On the lookout for stamps on our last day I popped into a likely looking shop and asked. Himself stood by as I showed off my language skills. When we stepped out onto the street he said, ‘She said to go to the tabac. It’s just down here on the right,’ and he pointed it out to me. Hmm.

The tabac was only able to supply stamps for Europe but I was directed to the post office for stamps for the U.S. Feeling pleased with my French conversation I stopped to browse some English language newspapers for a bit of light relief before leaving the shop. Himself looked up from The Times and said, ‘She told you to go to La Poste, back to the church and turn right.’

Well! He dredged that up from two years of schoolboy French *! years ago!

I wasn’t feeling so clever then so went for a little nap on the promenade. Can you see me? Look closely:

Wimereux promenade, France

Here I am:

Wimereux promenade, France


France is all in Code #3

Madame Pittino in front of her bread selection. I'm behind the flash. Jimmy has just spotted the pastries.
Madame Pittino in front of her bread selection. I’m behind the flash. Jimmy has just spotted the pastries.

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAUn 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.

Notice there is an apple tart slice missing at the back of the row. Jimmy ate that.
Notice there is an apple tart slice missing at the back of the row. Jimmy ate that.

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.

France is all in Code – #1

Apologies WordPress followers!! I’ve been offline for two weeks. Really to rethink the technology thing for our travels. Here’ the latest. Will try to post every couple of days to catch up to ourselves:

One can read the road atlas of a foreign country printed in English, book accommodation at reception with mute gestures, go to restaurants with pictures on the menu and supermarkets where you can wander and dither over purchases without speaking to anyone and look at the till for the total and pay up without understanding a word from checkout clerk. That will only propel you a very little way into the ambience of your host country.

Jimmy and wished for more interaction. At least I did. Jimmy seeks sunshine, warmth and good food and wine and one can’t disagree with that.

We found the village post office on the town plan and stood outside a locked door reading the opening hours. Numbers we understand. I’d bought a postcard knowing I’d almost certainly come unstuck trying to buy a stamp, never guessing my fist hurdle would be on the doorstep of the post office.

“It says here they’re open 8:45 to 12:00.” Our watches read 10:00 am. We tried the door again. Non! There were no windows to gawp through and shrug in a Gallic fashion to signal to someone inside.

Perplexed and confused – a frequent state of affairs for us – we were startled to hear a French voice, “Il est fermé?” It’s shut?


“Babble, babble, babble et vous babble, babble comme ça.” An approaching post office patron pressed a button and a buzzer buzzed, the door clicked and she turned the handle to let us in.

 The post office operated as a secret society or it was just a security measure to protect the post mistress working on her own in the building. We’d seen no evidence of gangs or lurking criminals but who knows?

After buying a stamp – place addressed postcard on counter, say something incoherent and receive stamp after handing over a five euro note to be sure to cover the price – we were locked in. A kindly gent, waiting his turn, pointed out the switch marked appuyez ici pour ouvrir, press here to open, and we stumbled out feeling foolish and foreign. A fit of embarrassed laughter accompanied us up the road.

The same security measures detained the uninitiated in the town hall. The employees decided it was better to release me back out on the streets of the village than to confine me to Le Marie, the town hall, with them, so, again, pressed a secret panel to free me from their midst. I’d been asking for the name of someone to enlighten me with a few French language lessons. My French was so atrocious it took three of them to understand my request and a fourth to usher me out. I have a name and a phone number but I am not confident enough to call. Stalemate.