My boss talks through his top lip.
This adds an extra delicious layer of difficulty to my daily struggle with the French language.
A normal everyday exchange goes a little something like this:
Me: ‘Nice weather today’
Him: ‘Plap plap, plappety plap plap sunny plap plap, plap plappety plap January plap plap plip plap plip brown. Plap, plap plap banana!’
I can’t complain too much about this, as he’s just trying to be nice and make conversation, but I really run into problems when I need to check with him when I am and aren’t working. I’ve managed to get it to the point – after verifying with my other colleagues, and checking the rota – where the response should be a simple yes.
This doesn’t change anything though.
Me: ‘So I finish at 12.30pm today?’
Him: ‘Plip plip plap, plappety plap plap, plap plap 12.30pm, plap plap small plap plap plip, plap candles PLAP! Plip plap, plop plap plip trousers plap plip plap brown plap plap plappety plop banana. Plap plap plap?’
(looks at his assistant to verify something, she looks at me, she talks mainly in vowels)
Her: ‘Oaui, oaui oaui, ooooooooa? 12.30pm, oaui oaui eh? Ooooaui ooooo, oaui. oaui oaui oaui, banana ‘
Me: (nodding head, waving hand like Obi-Wan Kenobi) ‘So I finish at 12.30pm, yes?’
Him:‘Plip plip plap, plappety plap plap, plap plap 12.30pm. Plip? Plap? Plop? Plappety plap plap, fish fingers? 12.30pm, banana plip plap plap‘
Her: ‘12.30pm, oaui oaui, ooooooooa’
Me: (backing away, nodding head) ‘Okay, 12.30pm. I’ll finish then’
Due to these exchanges so far I have turned up twice when I shouldn’t have done. Thankfully the plaps and plips are getting less and less as my ears adjust.
There’s been no improvement when I talk to my father-in-law though, as he also talks though his top lip. Except his top lip has a moustache.
Me: ‘How’s it going Andre?’
Him: ‘Mwaf, mwaf, mwaf mwaf cold mwaf mwaf mwaf mwaf mwaf, mwaf mwaf mwaf?’
Me: (smiling, nodding vaguely) ‘Great, yes’
Personally I never know when to politely enter a conversation with French people. I feel like a novice driver trying to join the roundabout of the Champs-Élysées. The French people in the English class I go to on Monday evenings don’t half like to interrupt conversations though. They just jump straight in whenever they feel like it.
Case in point last night at class. The aim was to go round the group (approx 15 people) and have each classmate speak a bit in English about what they did during the Christmas holidays, and once that was finished we would all then read a lengthy text at the end about Downton Abbey.
A lengthy text about Downton Abbey – and here was me thinking Christmas was over (that’s sarcasm BTW).
This all fell apart rapidly, because they insisted on cutting in and asking questions about the most minor of details when people were speaking.
Evelyn had a lovely Christmas. She spent time with friends and family. She had some lovely food. She saw in the New Year with her in-laws and her daughter. Her husband had to pick up their other daughter from Paris, as she couldn’t get home any other way due to the strikes. Evelyn also painted during Christmas.
This was how it was supposed to come out. How it actually came out was like this:
Evelyn: ‘I had a lovely Christmas with friends and family, and I painted…’
Pierre: ‘What did you paint?’
Pierre: ‘Did you paint a painting or a wall?’
Evelyn: ‘A wall’
Christine: ‘What colour?’
Evelyn: ‘errr, blue’
Bertrand: ‘What sort of blue?’
Evelyn: (struggling somewhat) ‘Strong blue’
Bertrand: ‘Strong blue? You mean dark blue?’
Evelyn: ‘errr no’
Christine: (pointing at Martine’s jumper) ‘Blue like that blue?’
Christine: (pointing at Isabelle’s scarf) ‘Blue like that blue?’
Bertrand: (pointing at the dark blue curtains ) ‘Blue like that?’
Evelyn: ‘Yes, a bit’
Bertrand: ‘That’s dark blue’
Evelyn: ‘Ok. And so after I painted…’
Bertrand: ‘What brand was the paint?’
It went on like this all evening. Every time someone would get a decent ‘flow’ going, somebody else would interrupt them.
The class was due to finish at 9.30 pm, however I had to excuse myself at 9.45pm.
They hadn’t even started reading the Downton Abbey text either.
I’m working in a tourism office in France at the moment. A desperate-looking English woman came in today. They usually look a bit desperate when they come in here. Either for an English-speaker or for the toilet.
‘Can you help me?’ she says to me ‘I’m out of books, are there any bookshops round here that sell books in English?’.
I lean out of the doorway and scan the sleepy French high street for a WH Smiths, not finding one I report back to her: ‘No’
However not wanting to leave a fellow Brit bereft of books – especially as she’s here for two more weeks and she’s read both of her John Grisham’s and her one (large) Harlan Coben* – I tell her that I will see if we have any at home.
‘My partner likes Harlan Coben’ I tell her ‘She’ll probably have a few tucked away, come back tomorrow and I’ll give them to you’ .
‘But you have to promise to take Fifty Shades Of Grey and Bridget Jones’ Diary as well’ I silently add in my mind.
She comes back the next day, a hopeful smile beaming on her face.
‘She didn’t have any’ I tell her, instantly crushing her dreams of detectives or lovers or vampires or aliens or whatever Harlan Coben writes about.
She looks so crestfallen that I tell her I’ve got some English-language books lying around she can have, but they’re nothing like Harlan Coben (or maybe they are?) but she is welcome to them. And some of them may be Fifty Shades of Grey and Bridget Jones’ Diary.
‘Anything!’ she says joyfully ‘I’ll take anything!’
She may regret that when she sees what I have found for her.
Have you ever seen such an eclectic mix of books?
*She showed them to me as some sort of ‘proof of readership’ or something, I’m not really sure.
I teach retired French people English every month.
You may have heard me mention it before.
Last night I took them a handout ‘18 Tips To Help With Your English Pronunciation‘.
How to make the ‘th’ sound was covered.
It had pictures and everything.
They liked that.
This was great because, amongst other things, I’m trying to help them say ‘the’ and ‘this’ and ‘that’ properly.
So then when they want to say ‘Hello, is the theatre this way, or that way?’ they say ‘Hello, is the theatre this way, or that way?’ and not: ‘Hello, iz ze see-a-ter zis way, or zat way?’ or: ‘Hello, iz ve ve-a-ter vis way, or vat way?’
There were suggestions for how to improve your English e.g: watch Youtube, listen to podcasts, watch the news in English and practice in the park by asking other English speakers if they sound alright.
It also suggested recording yourself, and then playing back your recording so you could hear where you were going wrong.
‘This is great’ I thought ‘They can do that later’.
‘This is great’ they said ‘We can do that now’
They all pulled out their mobile phones, which were far more impressive than mine, (which struggles to play ‘Snake’) and started recording themselves reading from the handout.
‘This is great’ I thought ‘My work here is done’.
Michelle looked at me. I like Michelle, she looks like everyone’s favourite grandma. And I bet she bakes really nice cakes.
‘Why don’t we get Phil to read some French?’
I’ve gone off Michelle.
‘We can record it and listen to it’ she added.
Now I think she looks more like that woman with the gingerbread house, the one in the forest that tried to shove those two bread-crumb kids in the oven.
‘Here, you can read this advert from my Aldi flyer’ she finished, handing me the brochure, and indicating what she meant.
I bet her cakes taste horrible.
I looked at the advert. It was on my personal favourite, Mastermind subject: hen houses.
The word for hen house in French is a nightmare to pronounce, for me anyway. It’s ‘poulailler’, which is really easy to copy and paste from Google (after three badly-spelled attempts, anyway) but horrible to say.
The closest I’ve ever gotten to a hen house is buying one for my French mother-in-law, and it’s this one awful word that makes me remember it so vividly.
‘You want a hen house?’ I’d said to her, on the sunny day of June 12th, 2018 (12.43pm) ‘Yes’ she said to me ‘From Amazon UK, I don’t have an account’ I clicked on Amazon France, ‘What about all these hundreds of hen houses?’ I said to her. ‘No’ she said to me ‘I want that one’. ‘Right’ I said to her ‘And what is it in French? a poulailler?’. ‘No’, she said to me, ‘It’s pronounced ‘poulailler”
‘Nearly, it’s Poulailler’
This went on for three-and-a-half days. Actually it was probably only ten minutes, but when you can’t pronounce something in French and you’re sat opposite an implacable French person repeatedly saying it perfectly, blinking at you like that penguin from ‘Wallace And Gromit: The Wrong Trousers‘, time seems to go funny and stretch out.
So back in class and I read the passage out. Poulailler didn’t disappoint and was still no friend to my tongue.
I finished and they made positive noises. ‘Hmmm’ they said and ‘Bien’ and ‘pas mal’ and stuff like that.
Then Christine pressed play on her phone.
Now I hate my voice, with a passion, and have been affectionately referred to as ‘Orville’ in the past by friends. So I was not looking forward to what was to come.
I was not let down.
The room was filled with a God-awful noise that sounded like Inspector Clouseau met that bloke off ‘Allo, ‘Allo’ and somehow managed to conceive a child. A child that took all the very worst aspects of their voices and dialled it up to 11. I felt like a French Borat.
My mind has thankfully blanked it out, as though it can’t keep such an awful memory in. Surely, I thought on the way home, I can’t be that bad.
I turned to my rock, my moon and stars, the mother of my children, my partner – surely she would reassure me?
Oh, and she’s French too.
‘Hey’ I said to her.
‘Hmmm?’ she looked at me.
‘What do I sound like when I speak French?’
She looked at me, blinking like that penguin from ‘Wallace and Gromit: The Wrong Trousers’.
‘Weird’ she finally replied, sticking it and snapping it off.
Teaching English today.
Little girl looks at me quizzically.
‘You talk English?’ she says, sat in my English class, blinking her eyes in confusion.
‘Yes, because I am English’ I reply.
‘But you talk French too’ she continues (blink, blink).
‘Yes, but I speak better English than I do French’ I counter.
(Blink, blink) ‘But you speak French well’ she says, making my day.
‘Thanks, I try my best’ I reply, feeling quite pleased with myself.
‘But not too well’ she adds (blink, blink).
I don’t think there’s anything quite as honest as a 7 year-old child.
‘Why are those two people going at it in that casserole dish’ I say to my partner, showing her an illustration of said people going at it in a book. ‘It says ‘passer a la casserole’ and there’s all arms and legs being flung about in a big casserole dish’. ‘Ahhh’ says my partner, drawing on her 30-odd years* of being an actual French person ‘It means ‘the one who is guilty”. I look at her then at the image. ‘Oh’ I say ‘That’s not what the group said tonight’.
Dial it back half-an-hour and I’m sat in the middle of my French/English group, leafing through a book called Ciel Mon Mari’ which translated into English is Sky My Husband it’s a book that Isabelle the chemist has agreed to loan me and is full of literal – very, very literal – translations of English and French sayings.
The French use this book as way of learning the English language. It’s been in Isabelle’s family since she was little, and she’s dug it out of her parent’s attic to bring it to show the group, as well as to confuse the English guy.
It’s not until I get to page 27 that one of them actually makes any sense.
‘They are very, very literal’ chimes in Christine, noticing my furrowed brow.
‘Yes’ I say.
‘And they don’t all work’ she adds.
I nod my head in agreement. No, they don’t all work.
I see one that is meant to be the representation of the English saying ‘Raining cats and dogs’. That saying means heavy rain – I know, because I’m English, but just to be doubly sure I’ve Googled it. It doesn’t mean that you go out with an umbrella, and if the weather is particularly bad, cats and dogs climb on your umbrella and urinate on you.
I notice one with some frankly odd activity on it, and show it to the whole group. ‘Why are those two people going at it in that casserole dish’ I say to them ”It says ‘passer a la casserole’ and there’s all arms and legs being flung about in a big casserole dish’.
The group draws on its 300-odd years of being actual French people to inform me that it means to lose one’s virginity. They say this while laughing.
Or maybe cackling is a more apt description.
I look at Christine, as I put two and two together.
‘So does that mean that the casserole is…..and you put the sausage in the casserole…?’
She doesn’t say anything, just sits there nodding her head and laughing along with the rest of the group at the look on my face.
The missus isn’t sure she believes this group and is going to ask her mum for clarification.
I’d love to be a fly on the wall during that conversation.
*Ages have been changed to protect the innocent**
***The term ‘innocent’ is here used in its loosest possible sense
We were sat outside in the fading light, enjoying a delicious meal at a local restaurant. I was busy shovelling a fruits de mer pizza into my mouth.
As another tentacle disappeared into my gob, my French friend commented on the contents of my meal: ‘English people eat some strange things’.
I looked at him, the setting sun glinting off my dark brown eyes.
I made the universal sound for a horse.
I made the universal sound for a frog.
I couldn’t make the universal sound for a snail as I’d forgotten about that one. Plus they aren’t very noisy.
Ha! I thought to myself, let’s see what my French pal comes back with now.
‘You know’ a voice piped up from my right ‘They eat crisp sandwiches in the UK’.
I looked at the owner of the voice, it was none other than the mother of my children, the light of my life, my moon and stars. Et tu Brute?
She then went on to describe, at length, how one makes a crisp sandwich, to the astonishment of my friend.
He looked at me aghast, asking with his eyes is this was true.
I held his gaze and said ‘The bread’s got to be white’, his mouth already yawning open, now stretched even further, coming within touching distance of the table.
‘And my favourite flavour is salt and vinegar*’ I added, without batting an eyelid.
I may have just lost a French friend.
*Actually it’s a toss-up between Seabrook’s Salt and Vinegar or Pickled Onion Flavour Monster Munch, but I think there are things that some people’s minds just can’t cope with.
Well after a brief (two months!) break for a variety of reasons including; partners working away in Paris (mine), expensive cruises (theirs), and Easter holidays (everybody’s) the English/French group was back last night.
For anyone who has forgotten (I wouldn’t blame you) this is the weekly group I attend where I speak French to a group of retirees, and they speak English to me – and we correct each other. Last night’s meeting revolved around another presentation by Christian, the retired something-or-other (I think he has told me, but I’ve forgotten, so I just imagine he used to be a lumberjack).
He was quite keen to show us a cruise around the Canary Islands, until we pointed out that he’d already showed us that a couple of months back. He seemed to disagree with this – even when I told him the name of the cruise ship he sailed on.
I think he just likes the Canary Islands.
So after he grudgingly accepted that we’d already seen it and – thanks but no thanks – didn’t want a repeat, he treated us to a PowerPoint presentation covering his trip to China in 2001.
Christian had travelled (by bus this time, cruise ships tend to struggle inland in China) through the country with five of his friends. I couldn’t work out who his wife was, and didn’t want to question the group…’dynamics’ for fear of causing offence, but they all seemed to be enjoying themselves.
Well, except for a dark haired lady who resolutely refused to smile – but there’s always one, isn’t there?
I pointed out the fact that some of the fashions appeared to be from 1991, as opposed to 2001 – and this seemed to greatly confuse the other members of the group, as they went off on a tangent about something else. I used the universal mime-symbol for massive shoulder pads, but they didn’t get that either.
It was a bit of an eye-opener to someone who has never been to China (me) seeing vast parts of the country that have remained relatively unchanged, for centuries. Using traditional methods that their forebears employed.
These traditional methods even extended to the bus that Christian and his chums were travelling on, as it had to navigate a slight ‘step’ in the road. To overcome this the bus driver used the traditional Chinese method of forcing the occupants off the bus to gather stones to create a ‘ramp’ for each wheel of the bus, so that it could pass over this hump. Then he employed the traditional Chinese method of making the travellers push it too.
I double-checked this with Christian – twice – and he said it did actually happen.
And you thought travelling on a bus in the UK was bad?
Christian also informed me that the Chinese – at this point in time – had still not seen many Europeans, so he and his friends were something of a novelty and they had lots of photos taken of them, with the locals, by the locals. I suggested that he should have charged 10 pounds for a photo, and 15 pounds for them to stroke his head. He responded – very seriously – that it was a win-win situation as they got to take photographs with the Chinese as well.
One of these weeks I am going to have the group discuss British humour – with an emphasis on sarcasm.
Littered here and there, as a subtitle on the photographs, was the term ‘long noses’. Apparently – and I’m just passing this on – this is the term the Chinese use to refer to Europeans. As I said, these photographs were taken in 2001, so they may not use this term any more. It was a new one on me anyway.
The odd spelling mistake cropped up throughout the presentation, I corrected most of them for him (not too many though, don’t want to annoy a possible-ex-lumberjack), with the most interesting one being where Christian had referred to a small street as ‘smalls street’. I explained to them – after correcting it – that ‘smalls’ in English referred to underwear. They told me the name for underwear for ladies (culottes) – which I knew, and men’s underwear, which I did not. For men in France underpants are referred to as a ‘slip’, which, I told them, was an exclusively female term in the UK, referring to a – and I struggled here with my explanation – somewhat sexy, sheer undergarment.
They immediately knew what I meant, and gave me lots of additional details.
The saucy devils.
The funniest correction of the night for me – and for the rest of the group too I’d say judging by the laughter – was learning that I had been calling my French teachers by the wrong name for the last few months*. I had been referring to them as ‘maîtresse’ when I should actually have been calling them ‘professeur’. Maîtresse is fine if you are a pupil, or you are referring to a pupil’s female teacher at a primary school in France. If you are an adult calling your teacher that at college, you are effectively calling them your mistress.
So that explains why my ‘professeurs’ kept laughing at me when I said this.
I’ve got three of them though, all ladies.
Not one of them has corrected me…
*Yes I also go to a French class twice a week, for two hours at a time. What can I say? I obviously like having a near-permanent headache. I love this language and all its crazy ways.
‘What is a feather? what is ‘flock’?’ we focused on proverbs at last night’s English/French club meeting, and there was quite a bit that was lost in translation.
The best approximation of ‘Qui se ressemble s’assemble‘ in English – according to my French chums – was ‘Birds of a feather flock together‘. However flock does not exist in French, and feather is a different word too, so there was a bit of explaining on that one.
This was proverb 23 out of about 90 or so.
It was quite a long evening.
My personal favourite was the translation of ‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks‘ (or ‘You can’t teach granny to suck eggs‘) which in French is ‘Ce n’est pas à un vieux singe qu’on apprend à faire la grimace‘ – you can’t teach an old monkey how to make faces.
I discovered that they have a specific name for people lacking in the standard number of eyes in France, as ‘In the valley of the blind the one-eyed man is king‘ translated in French to ‘Au royaume des aveugles, les borgnes sont les rois‘. ‘Borgnes’ being the name of a person with one eye.
When they queried me if there was a name for them in English, I dismissed their suggestion of ‘pirate’ (thinking they were kidding) and suggested ‘Cyclops’. They informed me that this would not go down well at all In France, and in fact would be taken as an insult.
So that’s something to keep in mind for this year’s Borgnes Convention.
Probably the highlight of the evening was when we read ‘Les petites ruisseaux font les grandes rivières‘ – little streams can make big rivers. This then had us all googling key words from the English translation of it – myself included.
There are now at least five inhabitants of a sleepy French town who are fully aware of what a ‘mickle’ is in relation to a ‘muckle’.
They are, however, still somewhat unclear on exactly how many mickles it would take to make a muckle, but they get the general idea.