Only the other day, I was… No, I’ll start again lest I lapse into a Vivian Stanshall pastiche. (Are there any other British expats in France who remember the Bonzo Dog Dooda Band on the kids’ TV programme, Do Not Adjust Your Set, which spawned Monty Python?)
But I digress. As I was saying, I finished my work earlier this week and treated myself to a rejuvenating haircut at the Bio Coiffeur of Brive. Happy with the cut, I then treated myself to a d”égustation spéciale at the Café Bogota, my coffee shop of choice. You can relax in the neo-Art Deco surroundings, enjoy the smell of roasting coffee and watch the comings and goings at the counter.
I eavesdropped on a blind woman in denims and Roy Orbison-ic shades, chatting to some cronies of hers, who were fussing over her guide-dog. They were talking about the apocalyptic storm of the night before, when the rain (finally) fell in torrents. I gleaned that there had been a mini tornado in Tulle, the departmental capital.
Since the rain was still coming down in sheets and since, inexplicably, I’d neglected to bring an umbrella with me, I took refuge in a local media store (a thing which, of course, I don’t often do – unless it’s sale time). Just one look, just in case they’d added anything to the bargain box since my first visit of the sale season. They had.
So I took my booty to the cash desk, where a youngish woman was muttering to herself about something. ‘What was that?’ I asked.
She looked up at me and I registered her expression’s instantaneous change. ‘Oh sorry,’ she said. ‘You’re a foreigner.’
Nothing wounds my expatriate pride like the implication that I won’t be able to understand the lingo. I haven’t lived 16 years in this country to ignore an insinuation that I can’t hold my end of a conversation. So I told her that it was all right, I understood, and we duly started chatting.
She explained that they got a lot of foreigners at this time of year and that her English wasn’t as good as my French. Which is my cue casually to chuck in my longevity card – as in, ‘Well it should be reasonably good after 16 years’, just to imply, I suppose, that I’m not some fly-by-night who comes here to buy a crate of wine, lounge by a pool, sell for a profit and move on. I added that The Daughter went to the school just around the corner (read: fine upstanding member of the community, who pays his local taxes and helps to support the ailing economy). Whereupon – and I just couldn’t help myself, brimming over as I have been recently with parental pride – I let slip that she had scored 20 out of 20 in her BAC French Oral (read: definitely the sort of foreigner to grace rather than clutter the country, so not to be ejected by the secret police).
It was a pleasant conversation: the kind of conversation I would never, ever have imagined possible when I was mimicking the American French accents of the ‘O’-level language tapes we used at our school. (‘Where is the baker situated please? I would like to buy a baguette for my breakfast. Perhaps I shall buy a croissant, too.’) And the kind of conversation that reminds you that it’s a fair achievement to be able to communicate on any kind of credible level in a language that’s not your own.
It was nothing deep or significant, of course, but it certainly beat those awkward exchanges where someone spots your accent and jumps in with their broken English and then you are both not sure where to go next. In such situations, I generally take the line that the onus is on me as a foreigner to speak in the other person’s tongue, but this can then trigger a farcical kind of duel – the winner being he or she who sticks to their foreign language the longer.
Just to put the old tin lid on an agreeable interaction, she even commented on one of the CDs I’d picked out of the bargain box. It was the first time in all my years here of grabbing bargains at sales that anyone has ever ventured an opinion on one of my purchases. Rosalia de Souza’s D’Improvviso. She’d heard a track on the radio and pronounced it good. I said you couldn’t go far wrong with Brazilian music. It’s a disc made by a Brazilian singer with an Italian band and it’s some of the best Italo-Brazilian jazz I’ve ever heard. Or Brazilo-Italian jazz for that matter.
Whichever way you look at it, though, as a foreigner I don’t understand a single word she’s singing.