A French-speaking lady left a high-speed, 10 second voice message on my cell phone. I have spent the last 15 minutes trying to decipher it. I have replayed it at least 10 times and I may need to repeat it a few more. I could ask a native French speaker to listen to it and help me. But I won’t. No, I’ve decided. I want to do this myself. After a year of language lessons, I should know what’s potting in a short voice message and I must translate it on my own, even if it takes a couple of hundred replays. Besides, the last time I asked my boss to help me decipher a phone message, it was from a recruiter, asking if I was still looking for a new job and could I send over my CV. It was a bit awkward.
I have more or less understood the gist of the message but the problem is figuring out how to call this lady back. She left a telephone number and that is the challenge. The French numbering system is so complicated. Beyond 70, numbers are broken down into parts and this demands rapid mental arithmetic. The French must be very clever people.
For example, 70 is soixante-dix which is translated as sixty ten. 98 is quatre-vingt-dix-huit which is a mouthful and is four, twenty, ten, eight (98 = 4 X 20 plus 10 plus 8). The French stick to this long-winded route but the Swiss and Belgians have simplified matters and will say that 98 is nonante-huit which is translated as ninety eight, like English. That doesn’t help me because I live so close to the French border and so I must know both systems.
When people leave phone numbers, they tend to group the digits into groups of two. They do not say, ‘Call me back on 3-2-2-6-7-8-9-1.’ I could cope with that. Instead they say, ‘Call me back on 32-26-78-91’. When they say the 78, I am not sure if they mean the number 78 (as in 2 digits in the phone number) or 60 and then 18, which would be 4 digits of the phone number. It could be either. That is why I must listen to messages what feels like 1,000 times.
My French has improved over the past year. I have my good days and bad days but I can get my point across albeit with a lot of flapping around. Hallelujah! Breakthrough! So what if I look like a highly-strung, ruffled bird when I speak!
I take two different buses to get home every afternoon. The other day, I hopped on the first bus outside my office and, when I sat down, I realized that the driver gave me the wrong ticket which meant I could not transfer to my second bus and get all the way home.
The bus started moving and I waddled to the front, taking my fat 7 month belly with me. For the rest of the journey, the driver and I discussed my ticket while the bus rocked back and forth like a ship on a stormy sea. I couldn’t hold on to anything because I needed my two hands for communication so I spread my legs apart and squatted into a ballet plié for optimum balance while I talked to him in his glass driving booth. I explained my predicament. He said I had the right ticket, I said I had the wrong ticket. I said he made a mistake, he said I made a mistake. He didn’t understand. ‘How can I make this man get my point?’ I thought. So, I spoke louder. On and on it went.
The other passengers clutched their handbags and briefcases on their laps and watched as if I was providing entertainment from the front. Surely they could see my distress? No one bothered to help me. One thing I’ve noticed about the Swiss is that they generally don’t give a hoot about pregnant people on public transport.
When we stopped at the station, everyone got off the bus while I stayed behind and breathlessly explained that I needed a new, different ticket and I was not prepared to pay more for it. I was just about to unleash my final French negotiation tool (tears) when the driver finally reprinted my ticket – the correct one – and I skipped off with glee. I can’t describe the elation I feel every time I conquer a French challenge like that. And the best part was that I did it all on my own, with no help from anyone. I felt like the Little Red Hen. In my head I sung that war cry from school days ‘V-I-C. V-I-C-T-O-R-Y. Victory victory is my cry. V-I-C-T-O-R-Y.’
But, as I have said many times before, I can’t get a big head. French won’t allow it. I have now finished my Wednesday evening language classes which were run by the local supermarket. They were brilliant. My Italian teacher was a great French instructor. I was so sad that the lessons were over and saying goodbye to my teacher made me a little tearful. At the end of the final class, I said (in French), ‘Rita, I loved these classes and I am so upset the lessons are finished. I feel as if I want to rain’.
You see, just when I start to fancy myself and think, ‘Julie my girl, you are the bomb’, then I say something whacked and off-the-wall and I realize I still have a lot to learn.