Learning to speak French like a native is a perpetual challenge. While I may have been complimented, numerous times, upon my abilities in the language, unspoken criticism in equal measure is not far behind.
For example, one of my immediate neighbours, whom I occasionally bump into in the entrance hall, has an unforgiving ear when it comes to my English accent. The signals arriving at his auditory cortex from his outer ear seem, perpetually, to have no relation whatsoever with the soundwaves emanating from my voice-box. A typical exchange might go like this:
ME: I’m going to a café.
HIM: What? You’ve got cockroaches?
ME: Sorry. No. I’m not awake yet.
HIM: Yes, yes, it’s a lovely day isn’t it?
It is at this point we both usually decide to bail-out of any further attempts at communication and make our farewells.
My students, many of whom are very proficient in English, are also somewhat disappointed that my skills fall short of those expected of a diplomat’s interpreter. If I’m bilingual – why can’t I provide a simultaneous translation of mumbled French slang from Gaston at the back of the class eh? I mean, how hard can it be?
“So are you tourists?” was the parting question at a party last weekend, just as we were making our farewells. The fact that we had chatted in French for the previous four hours or so did not seem to convince a certain individual that weren’t just passing through.
The ultimate insult came the same night, when I was picked up on my pronunciation of “dessert” – which apparently sounded too much like “désert” for comfort. I repeated the two words, in English and in French, in random order so as to try to prove the point that the words were so audibly similar that any mispronunciation should be forgiven. Instead I was greeted with “There – you see the difference?!”
This led me to suspect that perhaps I was dealing with activists for the National Front – for who else would be so shamelessly critical of foreigners? (Not an unreasonable assumption in Alsace where Marine LePenn enjoys unswerving support). But this was not the case, I was assured, they were just quite simply “French”.
“Really? No kidding.”