Moving to France - Bring your sense of humour!

by : B A Boyle

For many newcomers to France, one of the greatest challenges is actually to make sense of the French language which we studied years ago in school.

If you’re lucky you may still remember a little vocabulary or how to conjugate verbs, the exceptions and the rules. Nevertheless, beware. french learned at school has its limitations. It’s most unlikely that you will be able to impress anyone by asking “Where is the station?" “I’d like to book a room with a shower" or even “How do I get to the Eiffel Tower"

So, soon after we moved here, we came to rely on two very good pieces of advice:

If you can’t make yourself understood, try saying it in a different way.
Learn how to ask politely for the French person to speak a little slower/clearer for example “doucement, S’il vous plait" (literally, softly please)
Let me give you an example. Our first summer here and we’re living in a quiet little French village. We’re ready to receive our first visitors, daughter, son-in law, & two young children; a family more used to seaside than countryside holidays. How do we keep the little ones entertained. The supermarket is full of little plastic paddling pools. We buy two. One for water and one for sand. Water, we have plenty of but we need to visit the DIY store in search of sand.

If I ever knew the French word for sand I’d surely forgotten it long ago. We find a helpful assistant but make no headway. Even after playing the usual charade-like game, we still cannot make ourselves understood. I sense increasing frustration all round. Then I remember the first piece of useful advice. “Find another way to say the same thing". Sure enough, somewhere safely stored in my head was the French word for beach, so we ask for a sack of beach. Although this brings howls of laughter from everyone within earshot – triumph for us – we get the sand.

We are now prepared for our visitors but the tap in the bathroom has started to drip, drip and drip. Happily our DIY skills extend as far as replacing a tap washer. Back to the DIY store. Sadly, not only do I not know the French word for washer I cannot think of any sensible word as an alternative.

The assistant, helpful as ever, is determined not to be beaten this time by a simple thing like language but after a barrage of totally incomprehensible conversation I try the second piece of advice. “Doucement, s’il vous plait" Ah, ah, the relief on his face shows us that at last we have made ourselves understood. “Un moment" he says and disappears. True to his word, a moment later he is back, “VoilaFree Articles, deux ciment" and from his laden trolley he produces two sacks of cement!

On our next visit to the DIY store we ignore the useful advice and take a dictionary instead.