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Comme ci comme ça

I am off to France next week on a research trip for my next novel. And in order not to commit any faux pas I decided today that I should brush up on my French. Apropos the timing you may feel this is a bit late in the day, but au contraire, I am confident that with a little sang froid and a soupçon of je ne sais quoi I should be able to carry myself off with some panache. If I can just remember the difference between au naturel and eau naturelle, coup de grâce and cri de coeur, I should be able avoid any contretemps (and indeed any double entendres) during my research tête-à-têtes.

As you probably already already know from previous posts I love language, and particularly the French language, but vis-à-vis actually speaking it there is no doubt that we English generally have a very laissez-faire attitude. Most people I know either operate either in the ‘Allo ‘Allo, ‘Oh la la, zut alors, sacré bleu!’ mode or the more prosaic, ‘Parlez vous Anglais?’ mode. And, despite a multitude of evening classes and all the crème de la crème teach-yourself-language apps and CDs, plus ça change. The only French phrases that most of my friends can manage with confidence are ‘hors d’oeuvres, petits fours, vin rouge, nouveau riche, grand prix and papier maché’. Quelle horreur! But then en masse the English are known to be generally poor at foreign languages. C’ést la vie.

But the avant garde among us find this shaming, it is, in fact, one of my bêtes noirs. I believe it is de rigueur nowadays (you could almost say comme il faut) to at least have a go. Surely one of the raisons d’être of traveling is engaging with the locals. That’s certainly what I need to do on this trip. So next week I am going to give myself carte blanche to show not only some savoir faire but also some joie de vivre. I will use an aide-mémoire, I will seek out bon vivants and avoid ménages à trois (I have no desire to be a femme fatale) I will search diligently for the mot juste and chat away fluently to people in their pieds-à-terre about l’esprit du corps, cordons sanitaires, noms du guerre and agents provocateurs of the Second World War.

And will my trip be a success? Well, as far as I’m concerned, that’s a fait accompli.

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12 thoughts on “Comme ci comme ça

  1. Your post is wonderful. Seems that English has always absorbed bits of other languages from all over the world.

    • Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed it! Yes, I think even though (or perhaps even because) we are poor at languages we have got in the habit of absorbing phrases from other tongues. It’s an interesting phenomenon.

  2. Le nec plus ultra (I had to look that one up) in cramming the maximum possible french phrases into a blog post. Very witty. Have a great trip!

  3. I’ve got a linked series of books with Anglo-French heroes so I’ve had to make the effort. I did A level French and conversation classes for a few years but my knowledge is now very patchy. I also know a lot of vocab and can construct a sentence but then find myself floundering and flummoxed if someone replies. i recommend watching Spiral…

  4. Je pense que vous couvert tout ici, Helen. Bon voyage!

  5. Cathie on said:

    Helen, another thought-provoking post, paticularly because l love going to France but my grasp of French has not progressed from when l was at school. l am reminded of our holiday in France three years ago; my dear friend who is usually so thoughtful and sensitive would speak very loudly to the French people and say “You speakie English?” at which my children and l would cringe with embarrassment! Last year l bravely attempted to order a pizza delivery but somehow the pizza never arrived – l had visions of the courier driving around with a boxed pizza looking for a ‘mad’ English woman, or perhaps they gave up on me at the point of order?! So I am ashamed to say that my command of the French language is abismal, much like my ability to speak Welsh; l know lots of words but have an inability to create sentences that are comprehendable. l hope your visit to France is fruitful. Bon voyage.

    • You remind me of an occasion in Italy (before I had really grasped Italian) when I thought I had negotiated a price with a market trader for a parking space and it turned out I had actually bought two huge watermelons!!

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