How to speak French
“Mummy, you’re going to have to speak soon.” Sophie’s voice was low and steady as she held my hand and gave me a concerned look. Her hand felt sweaty and clammy, or maybe that was my mine. It was only our second day on holiday in the small French village and I was quickly wishing I hadn’t been so eager to offer to be the one to collect our morning pastries and baguette. But isn’t that what French holidays are all about? It was the part of the holiday I was most looking forward to. Getting up at the crack of dawn with the early morning sun warm on my face. Sauntering along the quaint village streets watching the smiling locals opening their dusty, painted window shutters and calling down ‘Bonjour!’ with a smile.
We were third in line at the busy patisserie. The patisserie was typical of most French bakeries. It had a large shop window looking out onto the street with white shutters at the side with paint peeling off, not looking too dissimilar to the flaky pastry delights lining the glass counter in neat little rows. There were round ones with sticky red fruit jam in the centre, some were folded flaky pastries golden and crisp on top. My mouth was salivating the longer we waited. The sweet smell of sugary pastries mingled with the aroma of freshly baked baguettes hung in the air invitingly. Behind the counter baskets of freshly baked crusty French baguettes lined the wall. There were fewer choices than you would get in a British Bakery. No crusty white bloomers, granary, wholemeal or Tiger loaf (I’ve never understood what a wild feline has in common with a baked good!), but somehow I knew that didn’t matter. There were only six choices of bread: the long floury baguettes stood to attention in their wicker baskets like soldiers on parade. Some dome shaped whilst others twisted into a knot. I couldn’t tell if they had different textures or different flavours so I craned my head over the counter to try and decipher the names and what they meant. Why didn’t they use the word ‘Pain’? I thought that was supposed to translate as bread. Slowly we moved up the long queue.
My heart was in my mouth as I frantically studied the names of what I was going to ask for. I was determined not to plead dumb and simply point to each of the delicious bread treats that I wanted, showing with my fingers the number I needed. I had been reasonably good at French at school, and although my vocabulary had diminished considerably over the last twenty years, I knew I still had a decent accent when it came to pronouncing words – even if I hadn’t a clue what I was saying.
“Bonjour!” the young French girl looked at me waiting for a response. I took a deep breath.
“Bonjour!” I replied in the same sing song voice that she spoke to me. “Je voudrais un ….. et deux baguette du chef.” I had no idea which bread I was getting, but I heard every customer in front of me order one so I figured it would be rude not to! My heart was beating hard, but the girl’s smile made me feel more at ease, particularly when I realised she had actually understood!
“Cest tout?” she asked. I had no idea what that meant but I carried on.
“Et deux Milee-Fuille et un cookie,” I laughed at my own pronunciation of ‘cookie’ which sounded like an English person trying to pronounce an English word like a French person who can’t pronounce an English word….!
“Cest tout?” There it was again, but when she moved her hands sharply from the middle outwards I realised what it meant.
“Oui, cest tout.”
“Sept, cinquante sil vous plait.” I rummaged in my purse to find the correct change and handed it over.
Bags in hand, Sophie and I turned round and made our way to the door. I felt lighter than the sponge petit fours in the shop window. I couldn’t help but be proud of myself at my own accomplishment of speaking French, and a person from France actually understanding me!! A voice at the counter caught my attention as I approached the door. It was the woman who was in the queue behind us.
“You alright Kate? Gorgeous morning, eh?” she was talking to the girl behind the counter.
“It is! What can I get you today then? The usual?”
I shook my head in disbelief.