Beki Grinter

I think my French is improving

In European Union, France on September 29, 2009 at 11:04 am

Just in the last week or so I’ve begun to notice that my French seems to be improving.

The first thing that happened was in the Post Office. Our local post office is home to two of the most cheerful postal employees I have ever met. I suspect one reason is because in France, and unlike in the United States, having a government job is not considered second rate (which I say as a government employee, and does not apply to all government careers but to a good number of them, like being a post-office worker). A job with the civil service, perhaps the post doesn’t quite qualify as that, but it’s close enough, is viewed as a career success, and you are treated with authority and respect. I also can’t help thinking that the hours are good, and emphasis on developing relationships with people in shops means that the ladies of the post-office know their customers, enjoy good relationships with their patrons, and so it’s a very social job. Anyway, they are the most cheerful people I’ve ever interacted with in a post-office and given how bad my French is any cheer on the part of people is usually a good starting position for me…

So, I was in the post-office. With a letter for the United Kingdom. Now it goes a way that I had written on it Royaume-Uni. And I knew to write that, I didn’t have to look it up (if I send stuff to the US, I know to send it to Les Etats-Unis).

But I don’t happen to know the French for letter. Postcard yes, stamp yes, but not letter. Luckily I had the object to hand. I handed over and said “je voudrais un timbre for cette” (which I hope was I would like a stamp for this — no idea whether stamp is masculine or feminine). And she happily put it on the scale and then I asked “c’est combine” which i hoped was “how much?” and I heard back une euro trente.

And for the first time since being here I heard immediately 1 euro and 30 cents.

Normally numbers come at me like water from a fire hydrant. I’m usually clinging on to the first digital when the other nineteen are rattled off. And like many other travellers I am sure, I am eternally grateful for the person who designed cash registers to display the numbers of the amount to both the person adding up the check and to the paying customer.

I’ve heard more numbers since then. First time around. And I have no idea why now. I’ve not been practicing my French numbers. Do you just acquire by duration?

Then there was shoes. Shopping still gives me some challenges. I don’t know how to say I want to browse. So crowded stores are good, but the ones where the number of servers outnumbers the customers are more troublesome. I explained once that I wanted to voir tout, which I hoped was see/look at all. But I’m not sure what message that actually conveyed, I left the shop shortly afterwards.

But, shopping experiences. So I was purchasing a skirt. I handed over my American credit card, and the assistant looked surprised. She then asked me whether I was English. I said yes. And then I groked, as an English person I would have a credit card with a chip (and I do, but I usually use my chip free American cards). So she was a bit confused about where the right card was. Anyway, that forced me to explain that while je suis Anglais, mais je habit on Les Etats Unis, and then I added pour vingt ans… (I am english, but I live in the United states, for 20 years). Tense issues yes, spelling issues yes (but fortunately I was saying it rather than writing it), and likely other offences, but the point here is that I’m muddling through more situations now.

So, the final glory (and loss) came in Galleries Lafayette. GL is a high-end department store. The one in Paris is HUGE and well worth a visit. Metz has one too. And I wanted a pair of shoes on sale there (sadly not on sale, we missed the soldes, soldes — annual sales — are the time to shop in France). Anyway, first I had to get the right size to try on,… Round 1. I’m sort of between a 39 and a 40 in European shoe sizes, first time to get both a trente neuf and a quarante just to be sure. She returned (after what appeared to be long enough to kill and skin the cow from which these shoes originally came, and whip the shoe together) with trente neuf. And so I learnt that they were all out of 40’s. Bugger, especially since trente neuf was too small. So it was time to ask for a quarante et un… to which I learnt, again in French, that quarante is the largest size they make these shoes in.

Let me just pause here to say WTF? 40 is not huge it’s not like people with 41 feet are flipper or something…

So I left the store empty handed, but I had carried on a three phase transactions involving numbers, shoes, not having what I wanted, ALL in FRENCH. And I know I should be ashamed, my French ought to be better than this, but truthfully it was my third language and I’ve struggled with the other two as well as this one. Languages are not my strong suit. So, all that said, I was pleased. This represents serious personal growth. And it affords a certain type of independence. I can shop outside of my native language. That’s actually a very positive experience.

And so I end by apologising to all the French people who have been on the receiving end of my French. I know you have genders for things, and I know you have more than one tense, and I know that your language that when spoken by professionals sounds beautiful. Thank you for bearing with this amateur.


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