Strasbourg | You Must Learn Speaking French

I’m acquiring a lot of physical possessions in France, which is scaring me a bit. On my desk I have a sepia French globe (a gift from Jeanne), a harmonica (a gift from me to myself; extremely ill-advised), and a strange glass ornament containing sand and water and bubbles, the three of which drip over one another to form little orange pyramids whenever I shake the thing, which is every thirty seconds because I have the attention span of a hummingbird.

I need to go out shopping today for a fancy pen, though I’m loathe to because it’s freezing and soggy outside. The weather keeps switching between snow and rain, as though God’s trying to take a shower and one of his angels keeps running the hot tap in the kitchen.

I need a pen because a week ago, after arriving back in Strasbourg after Christmas in the UK, I felt it would be good for my mental health to pick up a new hobby: letter writing. I liked the image of myself sitting at a desk penning long letters and posting them to friends in foreign countries, and I liked the idea that I could use my time doing something that didn’t demand languishing in the white light of a screen.

On social media last week I put a call out looking for pen pals. Around ten people replied enthusiastically; friends in England, Wales, the US, Mexico, France and Germany. ‘Wonderful!’ I thought, watching the replies roll in, until my mood changed half an hour later and I decided I couldn’t be bothered.

Today is the first day since then that I’ve had the motivation to do it, and so before long I shall be heading out into the blustery afternoon in search of un stylo d’or. It doesn’t have to be gold; could be any colour really. Gold just sounds nicer in French.

My French is getting better, gradually. The man in the cornershop I live next door to is French-Turkish, and ever since he twigged that I’m British he tests out the few phrases he knows on me whenever I enter:

‘Hello my English friend.’

Or

‘How are you, ha ha ha.’

Or

‘You again buy lot of beer.’

He’s pleasant enough, and having him literally seven metres away from my desk is very handy, however there’s only so many times in one day you can exchange the same three sentences with the same person before it gets uncomfortable for all involved; on days when I’ve had to go in several times, by the last visit there is always a vague air of annoyance emanating from both of us. ‘You must learn French,’ he says to me, and I reply ‘Oui, absolutement’, with my best smile.

This is the refrain of this country when you are an immigrant. It’s ubiquitous. From Jeanne’s friends and colleagues, to government workers, shopkeepers, bus drivers, bakers, and ragged red-eyed men swaying in front of the local tobacconist: you must learn speaking French. It sends my heart racing every time I hear it. ‘Ah, yes, thank you for the advice,’ I smile back, my jaw tensing.

‘They’re just trying to be friendly,’ Jeanne murmurs. ‘They don’t speak good English, so they’re just making conversation.’

‘Learn French!’ I’ll rage, pacing the living room, balling my fists, three hours after the encounter. ‘Do they not think it has occurred to me? Do they actually believe their little tip-off will switch on a lightbulb in my head after three months of living here? Oh, why didn’t I think of it before! Learn French! That’s what’s been missing this whole time! I thought something was off when I couldn’t read any of the labels on the food at the supermarket, but I put it down to fatigue! D’oh! Learn French! Of course!’

Jeanne has realised, after two years with me, that it’s best not to reply to these rants. I only spiral further. Instead she just makes vague murmurs of agreement and turns the page of her book. I always burn myself out before long.

The labels on the food at the supermarket are a problem, though. I’ve been learning to cook recently, and loving it. For years all my sauces were store-bought, straight out of a jar. In November—when France went into its second confinement and I found myself staring at the ceiling for an increasing number of hours each passing day—I decided to use the time to learn what other herbs and spices there are beyond basil. This part was reasonably easy: I found that if I followed recipes to the letter I could produce a meal that was at least edible. The difficult bit was identifying the ingredients in the supermarket.

For a month I had to make two shopping lists every time I went out: one column in English, and a second translated into French. While pineapples and loaves of bread can be easily identified by sight, herbs and spices cannot, and neither can tins of things, or flavours of crisps, or bathroom products; I once came perilously close to giving Jeanne a back massage with nail polish remover. If I forget my shopping list, I am forced to stand in front of the spice rack for up to fifteen minutes at a time, working my way through each little glass tube, typing the name of every single one into Google Translate.

Where the hell are you tarragon you bitch?’ I hiss under my breath.

There are three shops within a radius of perhaps five hundred metres of our apartment, which I visit in rotation to keep things spicy. The cornershop I live beside is the most convenient, of course, but while I enjoy supporting local businesses I do not enjoy watching him ring up my one pint of milk and four eggs to the tune of eighteen euros. How he keeps a straight face I will never know.

For a while I opted solely for the Carrefour Express—which is akin to Sainsburys—fifty metres up the road, however I am too ashamed to show my face there ever again after an incident a month ago. I had gone in for chocolate, and found my gaze drawn by two packs of vegetarian sausages marked with stickers saying ‘REDUIT 50 CENTS’. Down from five euros to 50 cents? Winner. I grabbed both packs and took them to the till (nobody makes idle chatter with you at Carrefour, they’re miserable, I love it), slapped my card on the beeper, and left with my receipt. It was only outside that I checked it: one bar of choc and two packs of sausages, totalling twelve euros.

I paused. I don’t like to make a fuss, but nine euros was a big amount to be overcharged. Without thinking I marched back inside waving my sausages around, only remembering that I lacked the language skills for this situation when the checkout girl turned to me with a frown.

‘Ah!’ I began, for some reason. Why? French people don’t just go ‘ah!’ at one another. Nobody does. But it was too late to turn back. ‘Ah!’ I cried again, wagging my sausages under her nose.

‘Je pense que… le ticket… est faux.’ I managed, wincing with each syllable. I think the receipt is a lie.

‘Pourqoui?’ asked the cashier. Why?

I gulped. I always get the word for sausages and shoes mixed up.

‘Le saucisson… sont cinq euros… mais…’ The sausage are five euros but…

I trailed off, prodding the sticker on the packet, and she leant in to study it, her brow furrowed. Already a queue was forming. Come on, I cried internally. Figure it out.

She began pressing keys on the register; slowly at first, then faster. A hundred keys later the register popped open with a ping, and for one sweet second I gazed upon the change I was seeking. Then she slammed it closed again and resumed her typing.

Moment,’ she told me finally, and wondered off, leaving me standing alone at the till. Three minutes later—six people behind me now, queuing in deafening silence—she returned with an older woman, and together they clacked keys and bickered with one another and slapped each other’s hands away from the till’s digital screen. I couldn’t understand a word of their arguing; I only felt my cheeks redden. Suddenly this didn’t seem worth the nine euros. Or any amount of euros, for that matter. I began to think of all the different body parts I would gladly sever if it meant I could escape in a puff of smoke.

I turned to the man stood waiting behind me and glanced at the bulging basket he was straining to keep hold of. I gave him a look that I intended to mean ‘ha ha, shopping!’ His nostrils flared in response.

After ten minutes, by which point the queue wound round the entire shop and out the front door, the till popped open once more, and the cashier took out one single euro and dropped it into the pink of my open palm.

‘Au revoir,’ she said flatly, her eyes already on the next customer.

I looked from the euro to her.

‘Mais… mais je pense que…’

With an angry flip of her hair, she replied very quickly in French. I didn’t catch one word.

‘Huh?’ I asked, fighting off a stroke. ‘Desolee… je ne comprends pas. Je suis anglais.’

This, as anyone who has moved to France will tell you, is rock bottom. Admitting you do not understand—and worse, admitting you are English out loud in a sea of tetchy French people—is to know the cruellest bite of failure. I am an Englishman; I am lost; I understand nothing; I am helpless; I, Daniel Hackett, am a tit.

‘Anglais?’ asked the checkout girl.

‘Oui,’ I quavered. ‘Sorry.’

The girl nodded, and waved to her supervisor, who had since returned to the other side of the store. Then she cupped her hands around her mouth and bellowed:

‘IL EST ANGLAIS! TU PARLES ANGLAIS?’

Oh hey, look at that – you can go deeper than rock bottom. Who knew!?

‘NON, JE NE PARLE PAS ANGLAIS’ boomed the supervisor from the regfrigerated section.

From further back in the shop, possibly the biscuit aisle, came another voice.

‘QUI EST ANGLAIS?’

Why are you holding this discussion at one hundred decibels, I wanted to weep. Surely this is not necessary. People in the queue were tutting, murmuring. Who was this English joker holding up everybody’s lunch hour? I looked, pleadingly, from my single euro coin, to the cashier, to my handful of sausages.

The checkout girl was busy shrieking still. ‘L’HOMME ICI. IL PARLE ANGLAIS. TU PEUX PARLER ANGLAIS?’

‘OUI, UN PEU,’ someone bellowed from the depths of the store.

A moment later, a lady with grey hair in a Carrefour polo shirt arrived at the till and led me aside by the crook of my arm. There, standing beside a little pyramid of tangerines, she informed me that she was very sorry that they had not applied the proper discount of fifty cents to my sausages, but that now the mistake had been rectified and I had my euro to compensate. Then she left me, and I walked outside into the chill of Strasbourg in December.

Swallowing a mouthful of stress-induced vomit, I looked down at the little yellow label on my sausages. REDUIT 50 CENTS. Reduced by, not reduced to. I had spent fifteen minutes holding up an entire supermarket’s worth of shoppers, all for one euro. Ah—yes. Of course. Of course!

As I stumbled home, numb and vacant with shame, I passed the cornershop.

‘Salut, my English friend!’ the owner called happily from within.

‘Salut,’ I croaked.

He chuckled. ‘You must learn speak French, ey?!’

Yes, I sighed to myself. Yes, I really must.

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