We used to go to France. A lot. Not the booze cruise, which would later become appealing as I learnt to saturate my liver, we went to France for culture. For cheese. To marvel at the greenery of the scenery, get lost and speak bits of French to kind but rapidly exasperated locals.
The reason for their exasperation becomes obvious when we stop to consider that my mother was the only one among us who spoke anything apart from English. Indeed, she had been to night school and was eminently more qualified than anyone in the family before or since.
However, having been to evening classes for Greek, learning Norwegian from a book and French from a course on cassette, and with a vast selections of multinational friends, sometimes the languages got mixed. Any sentence might start in French but then segue into something a little bit Balkan or Italian; perhaps she’d throw in a smattering of Greek for good measure.
It had been cold when we left Croydon. I know this because I was around seven and my own temperature was by far the largest concern, and biggest distraction, for my mind. In whichever part of Normandy it was, it was sweltering so we had to find a shop. It was decided before we entered the place that I would not be allowed to pack my travel bag without assistance ever again.
My father didn’t have any French. Perhaps a slightly embarrassed “Bonjour” but that was where he drew the line. People have their own sets of skills. My mother was the polyglot but she wouldn’t begin to know how to hang a door or construct a staircase.
On the ferry, my mother taught me to count to ten in French, so that was the extent of my multilingual pizazz.
In the shop, dying a death of heatstroke, my mother started talking to the shop assistant in a very self-assured manner.
I would surely faint without her dialectal abilities and my father, well, probably wouldn’t have been in France but, that was not the point. She would save the day in French.
I couldn’t begin to tell you what she said to the shop girl but from the look on the assistant’s face, it wasn’t altogether positive. My mother decided that the girl was simple. I’d seen that look before. So, she started again, rather more deliberately. All the while when she was speaking, I listened, and knew damn well that she hadn’t used the word ‘sept’ for seven. Surely, with kids’ clothes being designed by age rather than size, she would have had to say that I was seven.
The shop girl looked as if she’d swallowed a fly.
My mother had shifted into Norwegian mid-sentence. When she realised, my mother explained this to the shop girl. In English.
On another holiday, we passed by a street vendor in a paper hat, who was selling crepes. This seemed like just the thing to my mother, who thought it would be a good opportunity for my dad to practise the French she’d been trying to teach him.
A brief confab in the car, and she told him exactly what to say. She had to go through the numbers in her head beforehand, of course. There were three of us: herself, my dad and me. However, she couldn’t pull the word for three from nowhere, she had to count.
My dad repeated her words without question. “Un, deux, trois crepes, s’il vous plaît.”
The street vendor looked at him quizzically, and asked if he wanted one, two, or three.
My dad looked like he’d been offered money for me. He was horrified.
My mother leaned out of the car and muttered, “Why can’t these people learn their own language?”
She raised both voice and smile and called out, “Un, deux, trois crepes, s’il vous plaît, my good man.”
The street vendor prepared and wrapped one crepe, and looked at my mother. She smiled. Tentatively, he began preparing another. She nodded. He pointed to his work station and held up three fingers. She nodded again.
Swiftly, my dad paid him an unknown amount (this was in the days of Francs and even my mother drew a blank when it came to money), and returned to the car with me and the three crepes.
“See?” my mother said, proudly. “Having another language broadens the horizons.”
Undoubtedly true, but pointing and nodding aren’t quite the same thing.