Friday, February 1, 2013

Les Français ont un mot différent pour chaque chose ....

When we lived in Europe one of the things I found fascinating was the rest of the continent's relationship to the nation and people of France. Americans have this persecution complex when it comes to the French people that's entirely unjustified.

Contrary to popular (American) belief the French do not dislike us because we are American. They dislike us because we are not them. And that's how they manage relationships with all of their neighbors as well (okay maybe not the Germans; from a distance it looks like they're doing the wave). I've always suspected the French word for foreigner is barbarian but, alas, I don't speak enough of the language to be able to find out.

As it's turning out, that whole use of words to build bridges not walls mentality may not be getting much altitude in French airspace in the future as the government (again) launches an English word and phrase replacement initiative to repurify their native language. This is a project that's been ongoing since the Normans conquered Brittany (not Spears, the other one) in 1066 and the Normans found themselves saying 'Pardon my Anglo-Saxon.'

French automobiles are easy to spot on European roadways, especially at night since they have yellow headlights, supposedly for safety except no one else on the land mass they so graciously share buys that argument or uses those lenses. But undaunted, the French press on.

Too many years ago to accurately recount, I and a videographer, Bob G, were in Normandy, France, with about 200 US Army helicopter pilots (it was pledge week at Sigma Delta Chinook). Every bar in Normandy is called 6 Juni-I am not making that up. That's not a tip often found in your Michelin Guide and I'm not making that up, either.

We stayed in a hotel (pension, something with a room and a kitchen with a dining room), across the street from Sainte-Mère-Église, made famous by John Steele and infamous by The Longest Day. The spot-lit recreation of the WWII incident I have to assume harshes a not inconsiderable number of buzzes developed at the bar called, what else?, 6 Juni, on the ground floor of the hotel.

Helicopters run on kerosene and/or aviation fuel. Most of the Army chopper pilots seemed to prefer beer, in massive amounts. I arrived at that conclusion from a week-long 24/7 experience as we rolled around like legless tap dancers on the beaches of Normandy to return for supper every night, ravenous with hunger and had NO idea what we were eating as none of us spoke or read French and no one in the hotel spoke English. One night I ended up with what appeared to be a plate of escargot offal and it was beyond horrible. I was basically paying people to poison me (I never know how much to tip in those circumstances); they were earnig their money.

The last night we stayed at the hotel before a 20 hour bus ride back home to Deutschland (German, by the way, being the only language less spoken in Normandy than English) every chopper pilot attempted to drown himself in adult beverages, mostly malt and some grape. Coming down the stairs with our luggage and production gear in tow, I noticed fellow travellers in various states of undress, sound asleep hanging from stairwell handrails, some face-down and blissfully snoring on the carpet in the lobby and two others hugging columns outside, sound asleep under the canopy, having purchased Buicks earlier in the evening judging from the dried splatter surrounding them.

We loaded quickly knowing there was no point in working up an appetite since we wouldn't be able to understand what we were ordering for breakfast and whatever roadkill we were served would be so off putting it's amazing Jenny Craig doesn't use it as part of a meal plan. We were just about done when the hotel's concierge, in heavily accented English, pleaded for help in relocating the chopper pilots to somewhere NOT his hotel. "Monsieur telly-vizion man!" he repeated over and over again gesturing to the mounds and mountains of men piled everywhere, "pleeze, you must help me!"

My eyes narrowed as I realized this was the same man who, every single day as I'd start as best I could a sentence in baby talk French out of the guide book or monosyllabic English, would purse his thin lips together tightly while shaking his head almost imperceptibly and explain softly but firmly, 'no English, sorry!' leaving me to do pointy-talky menu stuff  in the dining room which always ended badly.

I took his full measure as the revelation slowly sank in. "So you do speak English," I asked. "Yes" (not 'Oui') he replied and repeated his plea for aviator relocation assistance, not that I cared. There's just so many plates of snails, so many runny near-raw eggs, so many unidentifiable bits on your dinner plate that seem to be eating other bits on your dinner plate, you can countenance before you strike back.

The hour had arrived, retribution was mine. In rapid fire from the depths of Jersey near-English, I shreiked my indictment of indignities for which I held him responsible because he failed to speak my language in his own country, ending at the top of my lungs in full roar with "Parlez vous 'Fuc- off?'"

Actually it's 'Va te faire foutre!' Another little traveler's tip the good folks at the Michelin Guide gloss over. Good luck with that English word replacement thing, btw. Bonjour.
-bill kenny

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