Languages aren’t my strong point. I scraped through German A-level. But even that was 42 years ago – in the same year ABBA won the Eurovision Song Contest.
These days, I can just about make myself understood in English, Geordie and Gibberish.
So it was a bit of a surprise when, around 10 years ago, The French Ardennes took a punt by appointing me as their UK PR Chap.
Well, “quelle surprise” – as they say in Charleville-Mézières. And even though I say so myself, I’ve managed remarkably well. Not least, by shouting at my contacts over there either very LOUDLY, or very s–l–o–w–l–y, in English. Or both.
There have been exceptions, however…
Such as the time I found myself on a familiarisation visit, mapping-out possible itineraries for the UK travel journalists whom I would be trying to tempt over there this year. I take no pride in saying that after a full day on the road, The Museum of the Forest wasn’t really ‘talking to me’ (in ANY language). Whereas the prospect of checking into my accommodation for the night – a cosy Auberge with the promise of a cold beer, and a meal using ingredients from their own organic farm – definitely was.
I found myself pulling into a lay-by and reaching for my phone…
-“Bonjour, comment puis-je vous halp?” came the voice at the other end of the line.
-“Er – oui?” (Pretty good so far). “Bonjour Madame.” (Pitch perfect). “Je suis Jan.” (I could almost be French. Although, why it required me to call myself Jan, goodness only knows). “Je non arrivé!”. (Actually, this French lark is pretty damned easy).
-“Erm – je arrivez NON! Je suis sorry. Je avez non (oh, what’s the French for “time”)…les heures”. (There, that should do it).
-“Pardon, Monsieur?” (We’re almost having a conversation now). “Je n’ai vraiment aucune idée de ce que vous dites”.
-“Parlez vous Anglais?” (I’ll try and make it easier for her).
-“Deutsch?” (I’ll try and make it more difficult for both of us).
-“Non problem. Je parlez un petits poi Francais.” (Small peas? I was clearly starting to panic). “Je suis Ian. Et JE NON ARRIVEZVEZ.”
I’ll be honest. It wasn’t going well. I think I even stooped so low at one point as to suggest it was all “non bon”.
But eventually, the message got through: I was sorry, it was not good, I would not arrive today. Sorry. Please forgive me, Missus.
Sadly, it was just as the penny started to drop with Madame that I happened to glance again at the paperwork I had in my hand, and realised I wasn’t postponing my trip to see the Museum of the Forest. I was in a lay-by, on the telephone, and speaking to the Auberge by mistake. It had taken some doing. But I had just cancelled my evening’s accommodation.
-“Naaaaghhhhhh”. (Pretty much the same in any language). “Madame. Je arrivé OUI. Tres bon. Erm – ha ha ha… Je suis Jan, et je arrivé TONIGHT…..”.
It’s to Madame’s eternal credit that she still gave me a wonderfully warm welcome on arrival, and even apologised for not being able to speak English terribly well. Unashamedly, I found myself forgiving her. What else could I do – except order une bière bien fraîche?
Fortunately, by way of a postscript, this story does have a happy ending, with some tres bon coverage in the UK media for The French Ardennes.