Somewhere in France, surely, there’s a barman or a shop assistant or a receptionist or maybe even a street cleaner who doesn’t speak English.
Or, to put it another way, there must be someone here in a customer-facing role who, when confronted by me smiling and speaking my best schoolboy French, doesn’t roll their eyes, die a little inside and answer me in my own mother tongue.
Three days over the border, having crossed the Pyrenees from Spain into the wind-surfing hotspot of Leucate in the south-east corner of France, I’m already wondering why I bothered working so hard to scrape a C at A Level. I hardly ever get a chance to use it.
At our very first stop – a municipal campsite by the beach – I marched in ahead of my wife having rehearsed my opening gambit.
At this point, of course, it’s hard not be reminded of PG Wodehouse’s wonderful comment: “Into the face of the young man… there crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to speak French.”
As always, on these solemn occasions, I cleared my throat gently, looked my target right in the eye and gave it to the woman behind the desk with both barrels: “Nous voudrions rester ici dans notre campingcar pendant deux nuits, s’il vous plait.”
Perfect… the right tense, the correct use of “pendant”, not “pour”, and topped off with a nice, polite “please” right at the end. On this form, I thought, she should be kissing me on both cheeks and asking me how I voted in the recent presidential elections!
To be the fair to the delightful woman, she uttered only a very succinct Gallic sigh and said, in perfect, albeit slightly accented English, “Of course, monsieur, would you like electricité?”
Now you have to understand this encounter occurred at the very beginning of the French stage of our European tour and I was still in that pugnacious, cocksure state of mind where I’m not going to give in to these well-meaning language fascists.
If I want to talk to them in their own lingo then nothing short of the guillotine is going to stop me.
I’d half expected this English counterpunch to my French jab but, like a seasoned middleweight, I was ready with a classic uppercut: “Oui, madame, et une place avec un petit ombre, s’il vous plait.”
She gave a slightly more pronounced sigh at this rejoinder, then parried me away with, “I have a number of pitches with shade available. Pick the one you prefer and then come back to me with your choice… monsieur.”
She clearly wanted this conversation to be conducted entirely in English but I wasn’t having any of it. I’d seen this tactic used before countless times and I usually go down after the first round like a glass-jawed patsy from Palookaville but, on this occasion, I told myself, I was going the distance.
“Bien sur, madame… er, avez-vous du pain?”
He’s just picking random phrases from an old French textbook, she was thinking. And she was right.
She narrowed her eyes a little and went in for the knockout punch, flooring me with what could have been an explanation – in quickfire French – that receptionists at French campsites don’t actually sell bread. Then again, it could have been a subtle demolition of my use of French idioms, or a casual remark about the weather. Whatever she said, it left me floundering around and slightly dazed.
“Er, deux baguettes, s’il vous plait?” I spluttered.
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