Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Friday, May 30, 2008

French lessons.

Here I am in France. Land of Voltaire and men of great writing and learning. Land of Roquefort and Pont l'Eveque, the cheese that smells so bad yet tastes so good. Land of women of great style and elegance. Land of all the wines I love and men of great learning, accents of romance, et cetera, et cetera. France is for the French and if you are not French or do not speak French, too bad. The French guard their ways and their language ferociously; they have l'Academie Française (the French Academy) for this purpose--the language police. They have rules about what names can legally be giiven to children at birth. So, you cna't just name your child Raswhanda or some such now loved as "super black"; even the simple Megan does not work for the Frnech because it's the name of a Renalut car model. The latest battle to save the language is in the realm of text messaging. Even the president was forced to comment as young and old texters write A2M1 ("à demain"—à-deux-m-un, meaning "see you tomorrow"), or Koi29 ("quoi de neuf?" = "what's new?") on their phones (see others). The French like their language use to be orderly.

But in all that love of order there is often chaos: they are often on strike, for example. Last week the fishermen were on strike: picking bones about something like scales for pay. Next week public sector workers will be on strike. The truck drivers and teachers seem to be on strike very often. Don't be surprised to find the farmers blocking traffic with cow dung heaps in the road. But France functions.

Many other aspects of la vie française demand quite an adjustment. I forget but am quickly reminded that in France it costs (a lot) to go to the toilet, and if you have no money or no change, you had better be carrying spare underwear. So, at le pissoir be accustomed to be told to piss off if you have no euros, and don't be a jackass and ask if they take credit cards.

A lot of France is high-tech, so at the Metro stations there are no people selling tickets only machines. No cash? Too bad. But entrepreneurs are there. They buy the books of 10 tickets at reduced prices and sell them at euro 1.50 each (US$ 3) as for individual tickets from the machine. That way you avoid the queue, and if you are a tourist with pounds or dollars then you can get a ticket without having to find a bank, ATM or exchange bureau. Bajan dollars? Get real. I gave US$ 2 in bills and the seller did not want coins, so I got my ticket at reduced rate. Yes! But high-tech France has old time Paris as its capital, and like London it is largely in the 19th century. So, again, at the underground train stations one has lots of stairs to climb and descend . I am now very strong but my arms are very tired. (I think that's why my tennis had less game this morning, not my inability to slide on clay courts.)

So, when I got off the high train from London at Gare du Nord, I took the Metro to Gare Montparnasse and found my way from the Metro to the grandes lignes (main lines) for the TGV (express train), heavy suitcase rolling alongside like a dog. But after two hours or so on the train I was dying for the toilet. I had tried on the train but a lady had decided to sit and die in the toilet nearest my seat. No, I did not have 50 euro centimes. So, where is the guichet (ATM)? Oh, over there. Found it. Thank goodness for ATM cards; not those from Barbados, which work only in Broad Street or Sheraton, but my US bank card. Cash in hand, I quickly bought un sandwich (sorry for the French language police who have no word for this). Armed with change I hit the stalls. There's no need for too much detail, but I immediately had a moment of fright and regret. I remembered that it was in France that I had first come across “squat box” public toilets, where there is only a hole in the ground, and the fast-running river nearby, was fast-running for good reason. That first experience, in my student days, had been traumatic, not for me but for a friend, who in squatting forgot that she had her purse in her back pocket and down it went into the hole and into the river...all of her money gone. “Oh shit!” she had screamed. Expensive shit, I had thought. A very interesting police report and a story for life. But, we have moved on since. Thankfully, in Paris, WC now means water closets not wallet catcher. But, imagine, in France you pay to drink the beer and you pay to get rid of the beer afterwards--in for a pound out for quite a few pennies. In Barbados you pay for the beer, get rid of it for free afterwards and get a refund on the bottle.

But for all its quirks I love France. I used to go there for holidays often as a boy. I had learned French easily as a boy at secondary school--we don't realize in the Caribbean that speaking patois and stardard langauge makes us effectively bilingual, and learning a third or more language is easy. I love many things French, especially the food. My weakness is French patisserie. But I love things like all the varieties of sausages--both those which are dried and eaten cold, and those that have to be cooked. The regional varieties of wine, especially if I can spend two weeks touring and tasting all day. The sea food--mussels, sardines, oysters. Real French fries. There is a good reason why the French can say "bon appetit" and English does not have a similar phrase.

I love the gentleness of French manners. Do not be surprised to see people greet each other warmly. That means at least a kiss on the cheeks, between everyone, even on first meeting. We in the Caribbean would blink hard to see a father kiss his son as well as his daughters and wife when they meet. It is regarded as very rude to enter a room and not greet people; this is a common thread with Barbados' "you find me here so it's you who should greet me".

So, I will enjoy my next 10 days here enjoying again the quirks (including the many complications of using my friend's French keyboard) and all the things I like.

No comments: