Francais Imparfait

I’ve spent so long learning this language, working on it and playing with it and living by it, that there’s never been time for another. Wandering around the world I’ve wished for others, wishing that I could suck their syntax into my synapses and sing in them, but they stubbornly resist; the words won’t yield, the genders won’t gel, the grammar won’t give. About all I find easy are accents.

It’s hard work, learning another language in adulthood, as I found out last year, taking twelve months to assimilate enough Spanish to survive two weeks of travel. It might have been easier if I’d spent more time on it each week, but there’s never enough time. It might have been easier if I’d learnt more than a few words of it in school, too, but there wasn’t enough time then, either; Spanish isn’t a high priority in Australia.

Neither is French these days, but in that case I was luckier; two years of high school French and some evening classes a few years back have seen me through more than a few French-speaking countries. I always think I’ve forgotten it all, and enough of it always comes back to get by.

I wasn’t sure I’d have enough for Paris, though. Everyone knows Parisians’ reputation for being fanatics for Français: how they’ll pretend not to understand any other language, and ignore any but the most perfectly spoken requests in their own.

Of course, what everyone knows is bollocks. Parisians “pretend” not to speak other languages because not all of them can; why should they, when the ten million people in their city and the sixty million in their country all speak French? And they fail to comprehend our imperfect French because it can be incomprehensible; imogen to were haved same doing Anglis in.

The Parisians I encountered were perfectly friendly and forgiving of my attempts to communicate, even if some of them had developed a routine bilingualism to cope with the endless flow of tourists:

“Deux billets pour Gare Montparnasse, sil vous plait.”

“Onze euro vingt cent, eleven euros twenty cent.”

I probably wasn’t helping by saying “Hola” to everyone for the first day or so before I recalibrated.

At the Pompidou Centre I was taken by surprise when the coat-check guy read out the slogan on the T-shirt I was wearing:

Tell me a story... Okay. I have been working here all day, checking bags, and... I’m sorry, my English is not so good!”

Better than my French, my friend. And better than the French of the American guy who bellowed through the door of the airport shuttle, “Does this bus go to Paris?” Sure, it’s reasonable to expect people who deal with tourists to speak at least some English, but it’s polite to ask them first. (To be fair, when I mentioned this example to an American friend, she said she once heard a German tourist ask a New York bus driver for “zwei tageskarten, bitte”.)

Still, for every American or Australian imagining that their accented English will be perfectly comprehensible so long as the entire room can hear it, there’s a dozen of us quietly wondering how to ask for postcard stamps without sounding like tourists, who are of course the only people who ever ask for postcard stamps.

An ad around the metro suggested that many Parisians are in the same position of linguistic yearning. A smartly dressed woman grinned out from beneath the headline “Do you speak Wall Street English?” and the answer “Yes!”, followed by paragraphs of Rue de Rivoli Français. It would be a while before she’d be translating Gordon Gekko, judging by the footnotes: 1Parlez-vous Anglais de Wall Street? 2Oui!

I needed more than a footnote telling me that l’avarice est bonne to navigate my way around French television, as I tried listening past the translators to hear what the Olympic athletes were saying underneath. One night we watched a clip show of the hundred most gut-busting bloopers in the history of the universe ever, three of them familiar old chestnuts from English-speaking TV, and ninety-seven of French news-readers corpsing on air. It would have been funnier—maybe even funn-y—if I’d had at least some idea what words they were getting wrong.

Luckily, a few English words have slipped past the Academie Français and infiltrated the language, making my situation marginally more hopeful. A prominent magazine advertised a free “CD-Rom de stretching”—handy words to know if ever I wanted to buy any CD-Roms or do any stretching, only one of which was likely.

The place I most wished for those Wall Street footnotes was FNAC. Even though it’s probably driving all of the romantic Left Bank bookstores out of business, there’s something irresistable about the French equivalent of Borders. For a start, there’s the name, which is almost as good as calling it “GNU” or “PTUI”. Then there’s the low lighting—so different from Borders’ fluorescent interiors—which gives every FNAC from Brussels to Barcelona the same appealing late-night feel. There’s the chance to buy CDs by amusingly-named French techno bands like Spacesheep. And best of all, there’s the huge section devoted to bandes dessinée.

Bandes dessinée

Bandes dessinée are comics; or rather, according to FNAC’s shelving system “comics” are a sub-genre of bandes dessinée, like manga. BDs are the idealized comics Scott McCloud speaks about, not just featuring superheroes but a wide range of science fiction, fantasy, humorous and adventurous tales. They remind me of the pirate comics in the alternative universe of Alan Moore’s Watchmen: a glimpse of what comics in the English-speaking world might have looked like if Superman had never donned his cape. The most famous are Belgium’s Tintin and France’s Asterix, but they’re just two series out of hundreds in any store.

Bandes dessinée don’t get much coverage in English on the web. I found an interesting comparison of bandes dessinée and manga; a patronising article in the Telegraph (adults in France take comics seriously! Snort!); a brief BBC piece on the Angoulême BD festival; and the English pages of the Angoulême site itself. None of the mainstream reportage tells you more than five minutes in the BD section of FNAC does: that comics are as significant a part of publishing in France and Belgium as any, and that they dwarf the shelves devoted to graphic novels in Waterstone’s.

There’s a bit more to be found on specific artists. My three favourite finds have been the quirky F’Murrr (the pen-name of Dargaud editor Richard Peyzaret), who rates only one significant page in English on the web; Lewis Trondheim, some of whose work has been published in English by Fantagraphics and NBM but who’s so prolific that this represents only a fraction of what he’s done; and the Belgians Schuiten and Peeters, whose twenty-year story cycle Les Cités Obscures is, judging from the two latest volumes and the samples I’ve seen online, a masterpiece which deserves to be translated and republished in its entirety. These are names the English-speaking comics world should know as well as Watterson, Moore and Miller, but it seems we’ve only got room in our heads for Goscinny & Uderzo and Hergé.

For someone who owns every Tintin and Asterix title there is, FNAC is a glimpse of heaven: a place where comics are available in attractive hardback volumes (still cheaper than the paperback equivalents over here) without a pair of y-fronts in sight, except when the heroes get their gear off for a spot of raunch. Even when you can’t read much of the text, they’re worth buying for the artwork alone.

The raunch, in fine French style, isn’t hidden away but instead is woven through the story, always with a sense of taste and chic (Parisians being, in line with their reputation, dauntingly chic; the contrast with Britain’s wannabe Britneys flaunting their chilled midriffs couldn’t have been greater). Translating BDs into English wouldn’t stop them from seeming foreign. But even the soft-penned bandes dessinée can’t compete with the explicit, in-your-face imagery of... the galleries.

There’s one room in the Musée d’Orsay more surprising than any other. Most of the paintings in this room are gloomy old-school canvasses on grand and noble themes, like how fine it is to get killed for the Republic, how fulfilling it is to pitch hay, and how tragic it is when babies get sick. Underneath one of them, though, is a smaller piece instantly recognisable to anyone with an artistic interest in the female form; what we in the world of art appreciation refer to as une beaver shot.

Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du monde (Origin of the World) depicts a woman’s naked body, covered from the shoulders up, from the vantage point of a whiskery artist coming up for air. Amazingly, it isn’t screened off with a sign saying “ARRETE! PUDENDA!” and a guard warding off children and sick babies. When I was there, snatching sideways glances like a trainee Englishman, two teenage girls were laughing at it and comparing notes, and a middle-age man was standing back to take its photo. (I’m sure he could have found equivalents at any news-stand—quite possibly with a free CD-Rom de stretching.)

The gallery guidebook says that Origin of the World was “behind closed doors” until 1995, when presumably it was deemed suitable for family viewing. How it went from under the counter to under our noses overnight I don’t know, but it’s probably no coincidence that this was when the web made the whole question of protecting kids from rogue pudenda moot.

I know the painting’s title and when it went public because it is, in fact, lovingly reproduced and annotated in said guidebook, every copy of which will eventually fall open at that page. And that’s not all. Judging from the shelf-space devoted to it, Origin of the World is one of the Musée d’Orsay’s best-selling postcards.

Thank Dieu for imperfect French. “Six timbres pour les cartes postales à l’Ecosse, sil vous plait.”

13-15 September 2004