In a jam with French letters;Talkback

24th December 1999 at 00:00
Lesley Jefferies has some sticky moments with linguistic cock-ups.

Never let anyone tell you that when speaking to a French person, the trick is to say English words with a French accent. It only leads to trouble.

Our first invitation here in rural France was to supper with the young couple in the pretty house facing ours. Serge spoke a little English, Rose none at all, and our French was the archaic grammar school stuff of more than 40 years ago. We were nervous but my husband and Serge were soon engaged in deep conversation.

Meanwhile, I was left to soldier on as best I could with Rosie. She asked me what French goods I bought to take back to England.

"OK," I thought, "I can do this." "Wine," I replied, "and cheese and pates and jam."

"Jam? But don't you have jam in England?" "Of course," I smiled, relaxing. This was not so difficult after all. "But our supermarket jams are often full of preservatives." Except, in my halting French, it came out as preservatifs. There was a silence. Even the men stopped talking. "That, my love," my husband whispered to me, "would account for the lumps in our supermarket strawberry." I was still mystified.

Then the dear man, whose French may be wobbly but who has the most interesting vocabulary, explained that preservatif was French for condom.

Of course, the idea that anything English is somehow inferior to the home-grown version is dear to the French heart. But even they hadn't thought our culinary habits that bizarre.

Soon the whole village had heard of my faux pas. But our social life took off. We are convinced our mangling of the language has added to our entertainment value. Our hosts, always polite, betray with just a flicker of the eyes or a strained look around the mouth that I've done it again.

I once introduced my tall cousin as ma cuisine (my kitchen) rather than my cousine. An easy mistake. The next morning at the baker's, the long queue of women greeted my poor cousin: "Bonjour la grande cuisine." Madame the baker's wife is not for nothing known as Radio Levure (yeast). She can spread and enlarge upon gossip faster than any bread rises.

Cousin can be a tricky one. I was introduced to a woman at a drinks party with: "This is my cousin germaine." As this is a first-name village, I addressed her throughout the evening as Germaine. At last she asked: "Why do you call me Germaine? My name is Sylvette." As I subsequently found out, germaine means first cousin as well as being a first name.

It must be really confusing if your first cousin is actually called Germaine.

Our nearest vigneron neighbour is lugubrious to say the least, but when I arrived at his cellar and asked to have my bidet filled up with red wine, even he looked a little startled. "If you want," he shrugged, "but it's not normal." I had meant bidon and a bidet - well, he is right, it isn't usually used for storing wine.

It isn't all one-sided though, and this consoles me when I remember my mistakes. My friend Pascale, for example, told me she had once been stuck on the M25 in a traffic "marmalade".

Recently we took secret delight when a Dutch holidaymaker greeted us firmly every morning with "Good Night". Then there was the Frenchman who wished to impress his English friends at a dinner. He raised his glass in a toast with the words: "As you English say, up your bottom."

Last year our son Ben worked hard on the vendange (grape harvest). As he toiled away up slippery slopes in pouring rain, fingers cut to pieces by the secateurs, he occasionally let out an English expletive. At Christmas he was amused to receive a card from a French friend he had made over the 10 days' work. He wrote: "When it rains, Ben, I always think, like you say, bollogs." Well, nearly.

Lesley Jefferies is a former teacher who now lives in France

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