We’ve all heard about how the French won’t talk to you if your French is not perfect. Yet French people have always been very patient with and encouraging of my weak French skills. Bill has had the same experience.
Perhaps we were blissfully oblivious of being shunned or disparaged. Maybe we are just less perceptive than French people are polite. Possibly we have such expectations of intolerance of our broken French that we are immensely pleased that anyone puts up with it at all.
Whatever the case, we actually find people in France to be quite welcoming in spite of their formidable reputation. True, ebullience is not considered a French cultural forte, so it sometimes takes a little guileless American persistence (or blundering) to find the cracks in the French resistance.
Walking Our Way into a Conversation
It was a fine sunny day in Pau, and we decided to walk south across the river through the adjacent village of Jurançon. We were aiming loosely for a wooded green hill that had some trails on it, according to our phone maps. Walking down a residential street, we found ourselves in a cul-de-sac which ended in the parking lot behind a large, modern apartment block.
We could see a sign which said “Private Property — Access for residents only”, but because that would mean a long backtracking of our steps, we decided we couldn’t read French. We could see the main street that we wanted to get to, just the other side of the building, but we weren’t sure if we could get there by walking around the apartment building.
An older woman was exiting the building accompanied by her little chihuahua-esque dog. She said sternly in French, “This is for residents only.”
Talking Our Way Out of a Cul-de-Sac
I said, less firmly in wobbly French, “Ah, yes, we are just trying to get to that street in front there. Is it possible to get through?”
“It is only for the people who live in this building. Where are you going? Where have you come from?” We answered her somewhat skeptical interrogation as best we could, and kept her talking. Bill brought out his phone map to show her where we are from, but she fussed that it was too small for her to see.
I was able to translate some of what she was saying for Bill, because my mental rolodex of French vocabulary spins a little faster than his. But Bill is very good at drawing people out and getting them to tell their histories. He really missed his calling as an FBI agent.
She was from another part of France, where her father had been a professor of something, but he decided he liked the Pau area, and so the family moved there in the 1970’s.
I said that my mother had been a professor of English, and also my grandfather had been a professor of Romance languages. I told her Bill was an electrician. Bill giggled and mimed reaching up to change a light bulb, said, “Oui, comme Claude François!” They both began laughing their heads off.
Bill feigned shock that I did not know who the famous French singer and songwriter was — he wrote “My Way…”, among many other hits — or that he died an untimely death at 39 while reaching for a light fixture when he was taking a shower.
The Shared Joke Broke the Crust
She warmed to us. She told us about the view of the Pyrenees mountains from her flat and what a shame that she had to get to a doctor’s appointment, her knee, you know, oo-la-la, she was getting old, otherwise she would invite us up to see it, such a view! but oh, well, we couldn’t understand what she was saying anyway, this was silly and she had no English, etc… (Actually, we could understand about 50% of what she was saying, and nodded amiably anyway when weren’t sure.) We chatted for 20 minutes.
I was surprised that she would even consider, much less mention, the idea of inviting us into her home, since she didn’t know us from Adam. I have read that the French value their privacy very highly, and if you were invited into someone’s home, you would never enter a room you have not been specifically invited into. And don’t expect a tour of the place, as we often do in nosy, loose America.
She seemed genuinely regretful that, because of her appointment, she could not show us more hospitality and talk with us more. And she decided to take us around to the front of the building so we could cut through to the main street, as her guests.
Hopscotching the Language Divide
We walked on, discussing how nice it was to have a had a real conversation with a local, to meet someone new and overcome their reticence to strangers. It was getting on to noon and a cup of tea or coffee and a snack seemed to be called for. Up ahead, a bakery beckoned.
Clearly, they didn’t get a lot of foreigners dropping in, and they had fun with it, with no malice or disrespect. They enjoyed the novelty of it. The staff helped us through the ordering process. They challenged each other and their regular customers to try out their English, and they tidied up our French here and there.
As we sat outside in the sunshine enjoying our repast, we both felt like we could become accustomed to this place. Despite earlier reports, the natives are indeed friendly.
A Baked Good For You
And I thought I’d end this post with a video I found at the ouiinfrance blog, where blogger Diane visits the kitchen in a French bakery: