Lost for words

Living France - - Contents - Ian Moore is a co­me­dian, writer, chut­ney-maker and mod who lives with his fam­ily in the Loire Val­ley. His lat­est book is C’est Mod­nifique!, (£8.99, Sum­mers­dale Pub­lish­ers). ian­moore.info

The builders are hard at work and Ian Moore is play­ing cha­rades

For any­one not flu­ent in more than one lan­guage, you’ll know that com­mu­ni­cat­ing in any­thing other than your mother tongue is like a com­plex ne­go­ti­at­ing process. There’s the in­ter­nal mono­logue with its own pit­falls, one-way streets and alarm bells; and the ex­ter­nal con­ver­sa­tion which needs to strike a bal­ance between panic and out­right gob­blede­gook.

French is es­pe­cially pun­ish­ing; di­rect trans­la­tion par­tic­u­larly can be fraught with dis­ap­point­ment. ‘Dalle’ for in­stance means a stone base or plinth, which takes the lus­tre of 1980s French sex siren Béa­trice Dalle, when you re­alise her name is ac­tu­ally Béa­trice Con­crete Flag­stone. Where French has great ad­van­tages how­ever is that the na­tives, in a show of col­lec­tive nose-thumb­ing at the au­thor­i­ties, shun of a lot of the rules, and there are a lot of rules, and just use noises and ges­tures in­stead. And while these are im­pos­si­ble to trans­late, they’re also pretty un­equiv­o­cal in their mean­ing.

Builders es­pe­cially like a noise and ges­ture con­ver­sa­tion, so much so that our on­go­ing cham­bres d’hôtes ren­o­va­tion is more like a game of cha­rades with the help of the BBC Ra­dio­phonic Work­shop. Gus­tave the builder has taken to punc­tu­at­ing all his sen­tences with the in­ter­na­tion­ally recog­nised wavy hand sig­nal of a slip­pery fish, pre­sum­ably to in­di­cate progress or for­ward move­ment; while ad­ding the words ‘bing-bing’, which sounds like a cross between a mi­crowave and self-cen­sor­ship but which (I think) is French for lovely jub­bly, though it’s a catch-all phrase.

Then there’s the guy build­ing the stairs who flaps his arms by his side, ac­com­pa­nied by a pan­tomime shake of the head and the rasp­ing suck­ing of teeth. It’s the space, he’s say­ing through the lit­tle-known medium of an­gry pel­i­can im­pres­sion, it’s not stair shaped.

“Oh bing-bing!” in­ter­rupts Gus­tave with an ag­gres­sive fishy hand thrown in for good mea­sure, though he gets a strong tooth-suck and an arm flap for his im­per­ti­nence. You see, I’d pre­pared French for this ex­change, ex­pect­ing some lan­guage is­sues ob­vi­ously, but short of in­vent­ing my own lan­guage and throw­ing in some slick an­i­mal move­ments, I’m way out of my depth.

I ven­ture up the lad­ders to the fa­ther and son plumb­ing team, hop­ing for some­thing from the talkies era. The son is stand­ing in the cor­ner of the nascent salle de bains, pre­tend­ing to put sham­poo in his hair. He has a bald head but this doesn’t put off his dad, who is mak­ing shower-like noises. The temp­ta­tion is to join in the cha­rade and pre­tend to throw Ju­nior a towel, but the se­ri­ous suggestion is that there isn’t enough height in the eaves for a shower, and Se­nior is wor­ried. He holds up a fin­ger, which says pay at­ten­tion.

He goes to the cor­ner of the room, to where the toi­let will be, and turns his back on me. I’m very English about these things, and while any par­ent will tell you that once you have kids, morn­ing ablu­tions be­come a spec­ta­tor sport, I feel like I should leave them to it, give them some pri­vacy. But Ju­nior is shak­ing his head like a Labrador with wet ears, mak­ing low tut-tut sounds. His fa­ther, and I can’t see his hands but I can guess where they are, clucks like a hen dis­turbed in the act of lay­ing. Again, the suggestion is a head height prob­lem and I turn to ad­dress Ju­nior who shrugs.

“There is a prob­lem!” Dad says, fi­nally el­e­vat­ing us above the beasts with some hu­man lan­guage. I turn swiftly to take ad­van­tage of this break and there he is, sit­ting, as if on a chair that isn’t there, his left hand mov­ing up and down above his head as if he’s lost a top hat.

The in­fer­ence, the cha­rade, is clear to see and it’s just about more than I can bear. “Prob­lem!” he re­peats, point­ing up­wards. “Squat­ters?” I of­fer. “Bing-bing!” I hear from down­stairs.

Well, at least some­one in the room ap­pre­ci­ated my joke.

“Our on­go­ing cham­bres d’hôtes ren­o­va­tion is more like a game of cha­rades with the help of the BBC Ra­dio­phonic Work­shop” There’s never a dull mo­ment when com­mu­ni­cat­ing in another lan­guage, as Ian Moore dis­cov­ers

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