LAWS OF LINGUISTICS
In Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, chief protagonist Jude Fawley naively assumes that learning a foreign language is like cracking a code; that mastering two or three words will miraculously provide the key to understanding the entire vocabulary. Hardy refers to this as Grimm’s Law; ‘an aggrandisement of rough rules into ideal completeness.’ In my experience this should more accurately be dubbed Gap’s Law, in which ignorance of two or three vital words renders useless the knowledge of a good many others.
While touring France, my partner Rob and I pull up at farmhouse with a sign on the gate advertising CHAMBRES. Booking in is simple; we may not speak fluent French, but are quite au fait with the words that matter; un nuit, salle de bain, douche. Madame gives us our room key and we take our luggage up. It’s still early, so we drive off to explore a nearby monastery.
A FRANGLAIS FAIL!
Returning two hours later, we are met at the door not by our hostess, but by her husband. Before we can utter a word he shakes his head sadly and tells us in French that they only have one room and it is occupied.Well of course it is! I try to explain. ‘Er, nous came ici…umm…’ Oh dear, how do I explain that we were here before?? Never mind. Is Madame home? No, she is not. Shamefully, I resort to the stupid git theory; that English spoken loudly enough is universally understood. An appropriate accent helps too, as in; ‘We woz ere before…in zee afternoon!’
The farmer smiles patiently, but continues to shake his head while repeating , ‘Complet’. Rob cringes in embarrassment and tries to melt into the shrubbery, but I refuse to give up. Abandoning verbal communication I point upstairs and and march on the spot. In response, the wretched man moves to block the doorway. For goodness sake, does he think I am about to storm the Bastille? Come to think of it, that’s not such a bad idea, particularly as I’m now in dire need of the salle de bain. What if Rob and I formed a small battalion, and made a forced entrance?
Thankfully, confrontation is avoided when our hostess appears on her bicycle, but the stress has taken its toll. It is only 7pm, but I would collapse on our grand lit immediately if I were not quite so hungry.
We find a brasserie in the nearest town and tackle the menu. Rob orders a lamb dish, while I opt for veal. Over a large carafe of wine we squabble half- heartedly over who is responsible for our linguistic deficiency. I blame Rob, for continually replacing the French language CD’s in the car with Queen and The Travelling Wilburys. He says I promised to enrol in an evening course, but never did. (it was not a promise, just a passing thought!)
By the time our food arrives the argument has dissolved in the rosy glow of alcohol. I make a giggly confession. When my high school French teacher held items aloft and asked; ‘Qu’est que c’est?’ I was either reading Peyton Place under my desk or sending notes to a boy called Barry Herbert. If only I had paid more attention, although Madame Orme would hardly have held up a calf’s liver, which is what I suddenly realize I am eating. Quelle horreur!
THIS PIECE WAS FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE AUSTRALIAN NEWSPAPER (our French has improved (un peu) since then.
Have you had any similar experiences in foreign parts? Feel free to leave a comment in the box below.