Well, Bread!

Who else recognises this phenomenon and can relate to this? Most people on here have, at the very minimum, enough French to be able to order a baguette, buy a newspaper and generally get by.

Apparently not so, even the more adept with the language will probably be able to identify with this.

You push open the door of the bakery (boulangerie – for those in the know) and you make your first fatal error. You say “Bonjour”, because that’s what one does. Instantly the patiently waiting, chattering clientele and the shop assistant are silenced. You may receive a quick “Bonjour” back, but you have spoken and they know that you are not one of them. (Just an aside this “not one of them” doesn’t just happen to non-French people, it can happen to French people from other regions). Anyway back to the story.

It’s your go now, you’ve arrived at the front of the queue and so you launch in your best French,

“Je voudrais un pain s’il vous plait.”

Silence. The assistant stares back at you, there is the ever so slightest hint of the Gallic shrug but it’s restrained, milking the moment with the pregnant pause, the assist replies,

“Un quoi?”

You give it another go in your best French but nothing doing, you now find yourself willing this person in front of you to make that leap of logic. You are in a shop that predominantly sells bread based products, you have politely requested “Un pain” and the shopkeeper doesn’t seem to make the link between what you have asked for (even with your accent), what they produce out the back and what they sell every 30 seconds of every day.

You’re thinking ”Come on, what can you possibly imagine I would be asking you to sell to me. Me being in a shop that sells bread, you being a person that sells bread. I even gave you a clue by asking for, well, bread. Please make that connection, I even have my €1.20 open in my hand, it corresponds to a price of one of those things you sell, that you sold to the previous five customers before me and will go on to sell to every person in the ever lengthening queue behind me, what can you possibly think I am asking you for ? A three weeks artificial snow skiing trip on Copacabana beach with free nocturnal pigeon shooting thrown in perhaps ???”

This has happened to me on more than one occasion and I can only conclude that either I speak really bad French, or it is their own special way of accepting us. Telling us that they know, that we know we are different, but that they love us anyway.

Please tell me I am not alone, that it doesn’t just happen to me.

I'm allergic to yeast. Oh dear, Brian I'd better not come to yours for tea!

I lived in rural Cambridgeshire with Suffolk moments away - Noomarkt where I shopped. Even served as 'Chermun of 'e counsl' and I defy any French person to learn there, my wife had a hell of a time with locals, the missing 'th' and the the beginning of 'the' totally foxed her. David and I were commenting on the passing of standard English and French, but then I know German has done the same and my rotten Dutch notes much the same. It is time doing what time does and some of us not quite keeping up probably.

Bread. My early years and many working years in Germany give me a strong desire for that. I use rye of course (farine de seigle) and buckwheat (sarrasin). My rye comes in 20 to 25 kilo sacks with visitors along with strong yeast, at least 500 gr but I also keep a 'mother' year container (old clay pot type, dark keeps it better). I don't mind th ekneading since my Kenwood Chef does that until the yoghourt streaks are gone (that's what makes German breads sour), then I finish by hand. I reckon to make at least six different kinds of bread in an hour. My OH makes Ciabatta, Focaccia, Panbrioche and Pannetone which are the preferred breads in her part of Switzerland. Our freezer is often 60% bread!

I just wish people would demystify bread making, it is a bit of hard work and probably cleaning after a bit onerous but easy enough. Yeast, well get a local baker 'tame' and buy your levure there without stopping buying bread, we do occasionally and if we ask say two days ahead there is no problem.

Yes bread is easy to make. You need fresh yeast and a bit of muscle power.

You can do great things with it like fill it with sun kissed tomatos, pesto, smoked bacon.

Or bake it as it is. Not heared of Chris Cope does he live here in France.

I know John Hayes through!

Teehee, my wife lived in Francophone Switzerland longer than her native Italian speaking Ticino... She gets the comments about how good her French is (fluent if Fribourgeoise - incidentally Fribourg is a bilingual city so heaven knows what inflections she has). The upshot of it is that I get away with most things when I get words or grammar wrong, don't know at all or use the older grammar I learned up until 1966 that nobody much uses any longer...

Good advice Jillian!

Oh yes Elaine, I get that reaction all the time, usually from my French husband! I've learnt not to take it personally...

Might be a bit premature but I mean it well. It at some stage you have children the pre-school and primary school are brilliant for meeting people. I can now no longer walk through the place where our two are at primary without stopping to chat. I actually need to allocate 10 minutes to get from where we park to my physio-therapist, since it takes that long (or longer) to cover the 200 metres! Be patient, it will all happen.

*to this (at the end)

sorry for the type :)

I've definitely been there... I am temporarily living in a very small town outside of Rouen where everyone already knows that I'm the only foreigner (but nobody talks to me or even rarely smile back on the street, great hospitality...) and here the way to ask is "un baguette svp". At first I got thrown off by the "avec ceci" thing, but it's crazy how something so simple can be so embarrassing and so frustrating.

Having had tons of experiences of social misunderstandings and rejection lately, I can relate very closely to thing :(

Hi David,

Mensch is simply 'human' or 'person' in normal German and indeed Yiddisch. 'Ach Mensh' is like saying 'Oh blow it' or something mild of that ilk. Not so long ago somebody used 'mench' when asking me to do some work for her NGO, meaning a quote... So nothing to do one with the other.

I have a few French 19th century books from vide-greniers and bought the more recent translations (one is Don Quixote and the other is The Old Curiosity Shop) and there is emphatically no comparison. Whatever is said about the French they have moved on apace with the English I suspect.

Hi Brian,

For an interesting example of argot in London property circles a "Mench" means a fee payable for simply mentioning a deal or some aspect of a deal, maybe over a rather liquid lunch, that enabled the other guy to do a deal which he benefitted from. It was an honourable thing, but could amount to several £k for literally one sentence. Nothing to do with the Yiddish/German which I think may be "Mensch" but I am sure somebody will correct me. I have a rather nice 19th century dictionary of French argot which some previous English owner has entered additional variations in beautiful ink handwriting. It's a diamond, bonzer, wizard, really awfully good, oojar cum spiff etc...........not to mention of course well wicked.

David, we're nearly the same age. I arrived in SW London from Cologne at seven and a bit. The net result has always been SW London 'yer know, doncha' with an occasional 'ach Mensch' thrown in. When I arrived in Cambridge I was a novelty, when I last had supervisee students a bit over eight years ago, my essentially little altered spoken English sounded like 'received English' and that was with lads who had been to Charterhouse and lasses from Roedean who all sounded as if their schools were based in Tower Hamlets. Like you, I too notice the French my primary age daughters are learning and how their teachers speak is not what my grammar school drummed into me. Tempis fugitem - but we get left slightly behind perhaps.

To be frank I have great difficulty in understanding shop keepers and the like in the UK these days, like what. Very few people actually pronounce English as it was during my youth and in fact current French is far removed from the classic French I was taught. One hardly ever hears "est ce que" now and questions are more usually statements posed rhetorically, yeah right? Who remembers doncherno and actually, actually. nowotimean etc. Now it's all whatever. The French do have language police, something that the English speakers don't, but it's a largely a rearguard action. I like to think that Parisian incomprehension of my French must be down to the fact that my French has a Breton tinge to it after 40 years, at least that's my story.

Errrrm… It’s not my ability in French that I’m questioning here, nor the context, nor the grammatical compositions (je voudrais…bonjour etc … Ans I know Hayley kicked her comment off tongue in cheek) all that was to set the scene. It’s the situation I was trying to get across, which I think most people picked up.
Glad you all have similar experiences though.

I agree with Hayley that the 'je voudrais' is not right - it's polite speak English that doesn't translate

Bizarrely enough, this happens to me too even though I speak French pretty fluently.This happens to me a lot when ordering beer - even when at a rugby match I went up to the beer tent that sold nothing but beer and coffee and ordered a pression to the total bafflement of the person behind the beer table..I repeated myself and still no understanding...so asked for a demi...oh, the penny dropped...what the hell did they think I was ordering?

....I tend to always order a demi or bière now to not confuse the poor loves...

Just to let you know, it's not just boulangeries (or people in them) that dish out this sort of laboured comprehension - I have this situation practically every time I have to call the farrier to shoe my horse - it's even worse when I see him at the stables to ask him face-to-face as he screws up every muscle he seems to have whilst I am in the process of talking! The concentration must be exhausting for him - but again - what does he think I am requesting? Yes, I will always have an accent with certain words - but you are right Jo, we make allowances for foreigners when they talk with strong accents!!!

no. Not just you at all. I have a relatively good accent and have lived here since 2006. It must be boulangieres because I can count on my fingers the amount of times I have not needed to repeat myself when saying "Bonjour, une boule SVP" (so thats less than 10 times from 300).

It's not rocket science, is it?

I have, however, discovered a potential technical reason for all of this confusion, well as far as une boule" goes, anyway. After reading your article I went back to my well-used translation site and clicked on the "SPEAK" portion of the dictionary page and, lo and behold, they actually PRONOUNCE a tiny little "e" at the end of the word "boule", so for all these years, I have possibly been pronouncing it wrong. But having said that, if I were French, in an english breadshop saying 'can I av a wite loafa pliz', I doubt it would cause the same confusion.

I thoroughly recommend this page http://dictionary.reverso.net/french-synonyms/une%20boule and would be interested if anyone knows any free phone apps which do a similar thing :)

I CAN only imagine that the shop keeper is having a bad day and by being stupid or rude it

makes/him/her feel better...It happens in UK TOO

The way you describe the scenario is so funny Nick, but yes I think that this must happen to just about everyone, I usually now just repeat what I've asked for, point at what I want and add 'oui c'est vrai, je ne suis pas d'ici!' I think they are trying to rumble if we can speak french for real or whether or not we are just trying to fudge it (which I am mostly)!!