Monday, April 23, 2007

Je ne sais pas Francais

So, I've made my first foray into mainland Europe - I hopped on the Eurostar to Lille on Saturday morning and spent the weekend sitting in the sun, drinking beer and eating chocolate. Lille maybe not top the average person's must-do-when-in-Europe list, but then I'm not your average person. Actually, I chose it because the Eurostar stops there and it's cheap ... but it's totally great for a relaxing weekend away. It was amazingly sunny too, which helped, and it was a "national day of reflection" in France (in advance of the election on Sunday) so everyone was in a cruisy, contemplative mood. Perfect for lazing around at a cafe polishing off a few Leffes and watching the world go by. The only thing to disturb the overall pleasantness of the weekend was my embarrassing lack of language skills. I've been in loads of countries before where I can't speak the local language, but haven't really felt all that guilty about it because, after all, who really expects a white tourist to speak Mandarin or Shona? But in France there was a pretty legitimate expectation from the locals that I'd have at least a basic command of their language. It can lead to some awkward situations, like when an old man in rough clothes comes bouncing towards you holding an empty sardine can with some coins in it, speaking rapidly in French. How do you react when you don't know what he's saying? I mean he could be saying "I've just found this can on the street, does it belong to you?" or "I'm running the Paris marathon in a couple of weeks, fancy sponsoring me?" or "I thought this can would have sardines in it, but for some reason it's only got coins, do you think it's a sign from God?" or of course he could have been asking for some spare change to buy food and shelter. Who knows? I found the perfect reaction for all these situations though - I gave an open-handed shrug and kept walking. It's a shame this doesn't work in all situations. Like when the bargirl asks whether you'll have another beer or when the waiter asks how you'd like to pay for the bill ... I think it would be wise to invest in some French lessons before the next excursion in a couple of weeks time.

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