Monday, 31 October 2011

At the Lost Property Office (London)

Received a printed post card from the Lost Property Office on Baker Street (world famous for Sherlock Holmes), telling me they might have something that belonged to me.  Funny, I didn’t remember losing anything.  I duly went along and this is the (politely-conducted) conversation that ensued:
Me:     Hi.  You’ve sent me a post card saying you have an item that belongs to me. 
LPO:   What have you lost?
Me:     I don’t know.  I didn’t know I’d lost anything until I got this card from you.
LPO:   We can’t hand over the item unless you can tell us what it is.
Me:     But, like I said, I didn’t know I’d lost anything until I received this notification from you, so I can’t tell you what I don’t know I might’ve lost.
LPO:   But we can’t just give it to you.  We need you to identify it.
Me:     Well, I can’t identify something I never knew I’d lost.
LPO:   (Looking at her records and trying to be helpful)  Maybe you can tell us roughly what category it might be.
Me:     I can’t.  I have absolutely no idea what it might be.
LPO:  (Trying to get rid of the item)  OK.  Did you lose, perhaps say, a bag?
Me:    No, not to my knowledge.
LPO:  A black bag??
Me:    I have a black bag at home which I don’t use.  I use this blue rucksack.  What makes you think it’s mine anyway?  How did you come to be writing to me about it?
LPO:  Because your name and address are inside, on a gas bill.
Me:    (Seriously worried now)  I’ve lost a gas bill and I didn’t even know about it?!?  Can you show me the gas bill.  I can’t believe I’ve lost a gas bill without knowing it.
LPO:  (Looking in the bag.)  Ah, I see that it’s not your gas bill, but your name and address are hand-written on the gas bill.
Me:    This is even more worrying now. Whose gas bill is it?  Why would my name and address be on it?  Where did you find the bag anyway?
LPO:  It was found on the Tube.
Me:    I don’t use the Tube.
LPO:  Can you tell us what might be in the bag, just to identify the contents?
Me:    I don’t know.  I’m a teacher, so I’d normally carry books, dictionaries and students’ homework in my bag.
LPO:  Aha!  Now we’re getting somewhere.  What kind of books?
Me:    I’m a Chinese teacher, so it’d be Chinese books.
LPO:  Japanese?
Me:    Well, I do know some Japanese, but I wouldn’t be carrying a Japanese book around.

LPO:  (Went off to consult her line manager, maybe to see if she could let me off on a linguistic technicality here.  Japanese, Chinese--they're all the same, aren't they??)

(Line Manager then entered the fray)
LM:   Can you tell us why you’ve got men’s clothing in your bag?

This is getting more and more bizarre!!

Me: I have no idea!  (I was now seriously getting freaked out.)  (Then a quick flash.)  Ah, wait a minute.  Is the name on the gas bill Kerry M…? He’s a student of mine, and has been learning Japanese.  

They went through the contents and found that it was indeed Kerry’s gas bill.  He was an electrical engineer who worked on construction sites, which would explain the men’s work clothes.  Mystery solved.  Phew!  One of the most surrealistic conversations I'd ever been drawn into, I can tell you.
(More to come on his bus journeys, in another blog.)
(London, 2004)

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Brain-washed (Czech Republic / Switzerland / London)

Jana and I were walking around the open air market in Pelhrimov looking at the goods on display and commenting on them.  Suddenly she said to me, "I was just thinking to myself, 'Oh, these people are speaking Czech!  They're from the Czech Republic!'  Then I realise that I AM in the Czech Republic.  It's just that I've been speaking English to you the last few hours."
This reminds me of the late 80s when I used to commute to Zürich to visit the Gentle Giant.  We might sometimes go to student-populated areas as he was working at the university at the time.  After one of these weekend trips, I went directly from the airport to the University of London, where I was working at the time.  There were students dotted around the front entrance steps of the college, chatting.  I thought, “That’s not German.  I wonder what language it is?”  Although I didn’t, and still don’t, speak German, my brain had got so used to hearing German sounds that I couldn’t process English when I heard it!
(Czech Republic, August 2010 / Switzerland/London, 1987-9)

Go ask the computer (London/USA)

Email from me to Valerio:  Haha, LinkedIn has just told me, “Valerio is now connected to Natalie”. The ironies of this techno stuff, informing me some three decades after you got married.
Email from Valerio’s wife, Natalie:  We might need to be reminded of these things by a computer. Who knows, Valerio and I may be suffering with dementia by now.
(London/New Orleans, July 2011)


Trick or treat? (France)

Colette’s seven-year-old nephew Yann sat there at the table with two-thirds of his lunch untouched.  I pointed out that he was wasting foodto no avail.  Then I remembered that we’d played marbles before lunch and had had lots of laughs, so I asked him if he’d like to play more marbles after lunch.  He nodded eagerly, eyes lighting up.  I said, “Well, you’ll need to eat up your lunch first.”  The next thing was he’d finished his food with gusto.  Trouble was: I then forgot about the marbles.  So what was meant to be “treat” turned out to be “trick”!  It worked though.
(France, September 2011)

Friday, 28 October 2011

A teacher can run but cannot hide (London)

My most avid reader and moral supporter, Valerio, has inspired this title with his comment on my blog “Never off duty”.
How right Valerio is.  I was waiting for a bus around 11pm one warm summer’s evening last year when an apparition suddenly leapt out from behind me on the pavement, stood in front of me and said, with a big smile, “老师,你好,我是 Brenda! / Hello, Teacher, I am Brenda!”  It was a Taiwanese ex-student who’d done my MA Bilingual Translation course back in 1998(??), and I hadn’t seen her since, which makes 12 years.  Yet she recognised me, in the dark, from behind!
A few months after that, I was on the bus home from St Paul’s, seated upstairs just in front of the top of the steps, therefore had my back turned to the steps.  As the bus moved away from the next stop, I heard my name called out by someone who’d come upstairs.  It was another ex-student, David, who’d also recognised me from behind.
Indeed, Valerio, a teacher can run but cannot hide.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Inexplicable (and unforgivable) rudeness (London)

I was waiting for a bus on Oxford Street, standing about 3 feet away from the bus shelter, along with lots of other people (it was Saturday and the place was absolutely heaving).  One of two Arabic-speaking girls (early 20s?), in headscarves (colourful, not black), suddenly turned to a white woman (in her 60s, eating snacks out of a plastic bag) and asked: "When is the bus coming?"  I thought they were together, all 3 of them, since the young woman asked the older one.  Then I heard the white woman say, "If I knew the answer, I'd be up there with God, not standing here on this pavement, would I?"  Not very nice, but some people do resort to a bit of sarcasm.  Then the white woman added, "YOU STUPID WOMAN!"  I saw the young woman move away from her as if she'd been slapped, and she looked so hurt, and puzzled too, so I went up to her and said, pointing at the GPS display panel, "You can have a look at the display panel up on the shelter.  It tells you which bus is coming and when."  A few seconds later, I felt something more had to be done, so I went over to the bus shelter, where the young woman was still smarting, and said to her, "I feel so sorry for you.  Poor you.  That was most unnecessary.  She didn't have to be so horrible to you."  She asked me, "Is she your friend?  Are you with her?"  I said, "No."  I should've added, "My friends don't behave like that, and even if she had been a friend, she wouldn't be my friend anymore."  The young woman said to me, "You are so kind.  Thank you for being so kind."  Sad, isn't it, that kindness is not assumed to be standard behaviour?  Like our being surprised these days when people are polite and say thank you, when it should be the norm.
(London, February 2010)




Ten dollar, ten dollar (Taiwan)

Peter the British geologist was working on the rig offshore from Kaohsiung (south-west coast of Taiwan), and came back to Taipei with this comment: “I know the Chinese are well-known for being gamblers, but this radio operator on the rig was doing it all the time, placing bets with every radio call!”  
What did the radio operator say, I asked.  Pete said, “Oh, his English isn’t very good.  He was saying Ten Dollar, Ten Dollar.”  
It didn’t make sense that a (Taiwanese-)Chinese radio operator in Taiwan should be placing bets in English.  I later worked out that the operator must’ve said the Chinese equivalent of radio-speak in English (roger, for “message received and understood”), which is: 听到了 tīngdào le / "have heard".

(Taiwan, 1976)

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Communications: non sequiturs (London)

I was telling a visitor from China on Sunday, when we got to Big Ben, about the one occasion another woman and I were waiting for a bus, with her standing in front of me.  The bus stop was at the southern end of Westminster Bridge, and Big Ben was at the northern end.  Our bus was coming from north of the river, which meant that we were facing north, so Big Ben was in front of us--but not too high up as it was at the other end of the bridge, not directly above us.  After a while, when the bus failed to show up, the woman turned round to me and asked, “What’s the time, please?”  
My visitor’s immediate response to this story was, “Is she local?”  Huh???  What’s that got to do with not seeing a structure directly ahead of you that’s 96.3m/316ft/16 storeys in height??!
Is this a cultural perspective to communications, I wonder?  I’d love to hear what theories people can offer for this path of illogical connection in communications.  Or is my brain missing a link for bridging that jump?

(London, October 2011)


Monday, 24 October 2011

Long time no see (London)

An ex-student Geoff, who’d inspired one of my teaching practices, dropped out of my Chinese classes when he moved to Cambridge but remained in touch over the years, arranging to meet up in a pub for a few jars whenever he came down to London.  For one of these visits, he’d appointed The Lamb in Lamb’s Conduit as the venue as they had good beer and not far from where he was attending a conference, and gave me plenty of notice.  That, in fact, became the problem as, come the day, I completely forgot about it--I always get sucked into the computer once I start working on it.  The next day, I received an email from him, with the simple message: “好久没见 hǎo jiǔ méi jiàn / long time no see!”  He’d sat in the pub over three pints of beer, waiting for me to put in an appearance.  He might’ve dropped out of Chinese classes but he certainly still knew how to use whatever he’d learned to good effect, even in irony!
(UK, late 1990s)

Falling asleep on the wrong line at the wrong time (London)


It was meant to be a straightforward get-together between two old friends meeting up for a few pints.  
Satoshi and I had our few pints near my film company office at Warren Street (Zone 1, central London), and stayed until closing time before going our separate ways: I northwards to Highbury on the Victoria line and he westwards to Notting Hill on the Central line--about seven(?) stops away.  For him, one stop south on the Victoria line, then a change of trains at Oxford Circus to the west-bound Central line train.  Whereupon he promptly fell asleep.  
When he next opened his eyes, the train had gone past his stop, so he staggered off the train, crossed over to the other platform and boarded the next east-bound train that came along.  And instantly dozed off again.  
The next time he woke up, the train was no longer underground.  (For those who don’t know the London underground routes, the Central line goes as far east as Essex, which is not in London--and London is huge in terms of distances...)  When he got to the exit, the station staff was locking up, so it was obviously the last train.  He had no idea where he was, nor which direction London was, and wandered around trying to find some sign of human life.  As it happened, a bit later, a car came along with three young people who were going in the direction of London and they kindly got him to a mini-cab place en route where he could get a cab back to London.  
He finished off the story with, “And don’t ask me how much the taxi fare came to!”  (It was Essex and past midnight, so it must’ve been eye-watering.)  He added, “I won't be able to afford going out for a drink with you again for a while.”
(London, 1983)

Saturday, 22 October 2011

The bus that goes nowhere (Taiwan)


Simon, an English friend a year above me at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London), went to Taipei and found there was a No. 0 bus.  He immediately thought, "A bus that goes nowhere!"  It turned out to be a circular route: a clockwise one and an anti-clockwise one.  We did call it 0 南 (líng nán / “zero south”) and 0 北 (líng běi / “zero north”) though, so Simon had a point.

(Taipei, 1981)


Friday, 21 October 2011

Matter over mind in reverse? (France)

About twelve days before my departure on 03 October, Serge and Jeanette started discussing at the dinner table locking up the dogsand further away from the farm house as wellin readiness for the arrival of old friends Simon and Mauricette, so that they (Simon and Mauricette, not the dogs) wouldn't be disturbed by the nocturnal growling (from the dogs, not Simon and Mauricette).  I chipped in with, "But if they're locked up, they'll be barking, which will still disturb Simon and Mauricette."  Serge immediately commented that my French was now good enough for me to understand things and to communicate my opinions as well.  (Between you and me, he didn't notice that a lot of what I said was pidgin French and gesturing / miming.  He understood my message, so he took it to be French...)  (See the other, related blog entry: Matter over mind)

(France, September 2011)

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Sopa minuta (Peru)

We were on the point of leaving a little cafe in Nazca after our so-so meal when we spotted someone eating an interesting-looking Singapore Laksa-type dish (something noodle-like in a bright orange red soup base), so we asked him for the name for future reference.  He told us it was sopa minuta.  Felt quite pleased with ourselves for having done a clever thing like that as we had always been too shy about asking and ended up not being to order a dish we’d liked on sight on a previous occasion, and looked forward to trying it out for ourselves at the next town.  Once there, we duly ordered a sopa minuta.  What arrived was an anaemic-looking dish: white without the noodle stuff.  We told the waiter he’d brought us the wrong order, and that we’d ordered sopa minuta.  He said, yes, this is sopa minuta.  It turned out that “sopa minuta” (literally "soup minute"?) only meant something like “soup of the day”.

(Peru, 1986)

Purrfect pals (France)

For some reason, the cats on the farm are not assigned any names (and have never been, I think).  The dogs are called Patou, Fleurie, Mizou, and so on (Dino doesn’t count as he came already named Dino by his previous, now deceased, owner--see blog entry Dino the dirty dog), but the cats are all just addressed as Mimi (see blog entry Minou), even when spoken to directly and singly.
The frisky one (little black cat) will totally disrupt your reading or journal-writing, endlessly nudging your fingers, hands and any other part of your body that he can mark you with.  By “mark”, I mean mainly scent but he also leaves scratch marks when he jumps on or all over you, and (playful but painful) bite marks when he suddenly takes a fancy to your finger.  
As soon as the one with tiger stripes spots you (haha! play on stripes and spots), he will instantly claim your lap--or even chest if you’re sitting a bit reclined (as in a sun-lounger)--and go to sleep, freezing you in the one pose until your legs go numb.  If you move him to de-numb your legs, he’ll immediately climb back on.  If you’ve got something on your lap (e.g., dry haricot bean pods to shell), Tiger (my name for him) will sit on the bit of sun-lounger beside or behind you, basically staying close throughout even though you’re too busy to stroke or cuddle him.  If you leave the sun-lounger, so will he, which proves that he’s not there for the sun-lounger but for your company.  One feels honoured to be adopted by cats in this way, as the Gentle Giant used to say.  (He also called them “whores”, though, sucking up to anyone who will dish out the stroking and cuddling.)
Mummy Cat--as I call the variegated one with successive broods, poor old girl--will try to get to your face, for her to nuzzle, by climbing up your leg--or arm, if you bend down, say, to pull up some weeds--with her front legs.  Sweet, if rather painful.  She has this lovely touch of putting her paws on your shoulders, one on each side, then wrapping them round your neck in a big hug while she nuzzles your chin or cheek.  If you’re standing at a table, she’ll jump onto the table to try and reach you from that level.  If you stand back, she’ll try and reach out, sometimes to the point of nearly falling off the table herself, in which case she’ll even keep three legs on the table and just use one to try and climb up your arm in her eagerness to get to your face for that nuzzle.  Affectionate or demanding?  I find it touching.
Practically all the cats are highly responsive and interactive, though in different ways.  Each looks different (in colour combinations and patterns) and each has his/her own very individualistic mannerisms and way of communicating with you.  As I got to know each one, I found myself saying to them in turn every day--often more than once a day, “I wish I could take you back to London with me.”  I can see why Serge and Jeanette have them around, even though it means extra work and cost, because they fill one’s life with so much affection. 
The beige one (and mother of the black frisky one--they are both the same size and I’d mistaken them to be siblings) was the first to “adopt” me by greeting me from under the bushy climber by the front door before I’d even spotted her having a kip there.  After the first few days of my arrival, she took to sleeping in my bed, then in my open suitcase among my clothes, and finally on it when I shut the lid.  She’d get to my room by climbing up the ground floor shutters and then the stretch of wall between the shutters on the two storeys, thus endangering her nine lives.  The black canvas material of the suitcase was liberally covered with her pale hairs by my last day, but when Mauricette (who was visiting for a week with her husband Simon) offered to brush them off, I said no, I wanted to keep it as it was--as a souvenir, to keep the memory of these purrfect pals alive and fresh.
(France, September/October 2011)

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Completely free-range now (France)

I found a new development on the French farm on my visit this year: it has gone even more free-range.  
When I first spotted the chickens wandering around the ex-kitchen garden next to their corralled area late afternoon on my first day, I was rather alarmed and reported this to Jeanette, who reassured me that it was legit and intentional.  
Another thing I noticed--on my arrival at the farm house, in fact, because I nearly tripped over her--was there was a dog lying down calmly on the floor of the living/dining room in front of the stove.  I say calmly because she didn’t even bother to try and shift out of the way, as most dogs would do if they were sleeping in the path of passing feet.  (This turned out to be Mizou--see Eats shoots and leaves.)
Finally, the cats, which used to be banned from the house as well, bar one (see Minou).  This year there’re about a dozen of them--after the first ten, I gave up counting as I only have ten fingers--five of which are kittens a few months old (under a year, I’d say, although I’m bad at telling age--see Minou).  
Not only have they increased in number, they have also increased in temerity--jumping in through any open windows (two in the living/dining room, one in [deceased] Grandma Meimei’s old bedroom, one in the master bedroom upstairs which was assigned to me for my month-long stay) and helping themselves to any soft surface for kipping on, including my lap--which has the added advantage of being warm as well.  Make the mistake of having eye contact with them, even if accidental, and they’ll make a bee line for you, leaping straight onto your lap without even asking for permission first.  They also help themselves freely to the shop-bought dry cat food--straight out of the bag.
(For more on the cats, see Purrfect pals.)

(France, September/October 2011)

Eats shoots and leaves (France)

Colette said, when she told me Jeanette’s cousin Francis and wife Nicole had invited us (Serge, Jeanette and I) over to theirs for dinner, that they were very nice people but loud.  In the end, for some reason, they came over to the farm house instead, and I cooked a Chinese meal.  The following day, Colette texted to find out how dinner at the cousin’s house had gone.  In my hurry, I left out a comma in my text back: “Dinner was here and loud dog died.”  
One of the dogs, Mizou, had been bitten in the leg (by a fox??) and been unwell, so she was allowed to spend all her time in the house, given all the juicy scraps, and fed special dishes (mashed potatoes in milk).  In my second and third weeks there, she’d had a couple of fits (like epileptic fits), requiring trips to the vet’s, and died in my final week there.  
Colette was trying to figure out which loud dog it might’ve been that died.  Dino immediately came to mind, being the perpetual woofer (not wwoofer--see The lone barking wwoofer), but he’d been in rude health (naturally, being a rude dog with a dirty habit--see Dino the dirty dog) when she was at the farm the weekend before.  Of course, my text should’ve been, “Dinner was here and loud, dog died.”

(France, September/October 2011)



*For those who don’t know the implications behind my choice of the title “Eats shoots and leaves”: (1) The dictionary definition of a panda, among other things, says it “eats shoots and leaves”; (2) Inserting a comma after “eats” makes “shoots” and “leaves” verbs instead of nouns, thereby changing the whole perspective altogether.  A comic strip has a panda walking into a bar restaurant, (ordering and) consuming some food, then pulling out a gun, firing into the air and walking out, hence “eats, shoots and leaves”.  Lynn Truss has written a book about punctuation, with this title, and I think the comic strip might’ve been done just for the book.  Google her if you’re interested in more information about her.

The French way: pain with everything (France / UK)

The French, or at least those on the French farm I’ve been going to, seem to need to have some pain with everything (except the dessert): soup, salad, main course, cheese--pain in one hand, spoon or fork in the other.  They even have it with the fried rice I serve them: one forkful of fried rice, one bite of the pain; or use the pain to shove the fried rice onto the fork, eat the forkful of rice, then a bite of the pain.

Mind you, the Brits also amaze me with their chip butty: a slice of bread piled with chips.

(France, September/October 2010)

An eggsperiment (France)

The details are being hatched.


(France, September/October 2011)




WWOOFing (UK / France)

The first time I heard about WWOOF (Weekend Working On Organic Farm) was in 1983 from Mary, who was a member.  (Update 280112:  It's now Worldwide Working On Organic Farm.)
When you registered, they would send you a form to fill in, where you stated your preferences (region, time windows, size and type of farm).  They would then match you with the right people.  A wwoofer could bring a guest.  You paid for your own transport and worked for the farm free; they fed you (and of course, housed you) for the duration.  What you get out of it, I guess, apart from the outdoor work, is you get to travel to different places and meet different people.  I heard in 2007 that they’d gone international, i.e., you could go wwoofing outside the UKthe person who told me about this cited the case of a friend going wwoofing in Portugal.  
On this trip to the French farm in early September, I ran into Toria at Toulouse airport, so I got a lift to the farm as Toria’s boyfriend has bought a chateau (which they’re doing up) not far away.  I mentioned wwoofing as I think of myself as a lone wwoofer solely covering the French farm.  I also cited one of Mary’s stories about one wwoofing hostess being an old lady with an allotment some distance from the house, so they had to get a bus there and back, carrying with them all the gardening gearrake, spade, garden fork, which must’ve been quite a sight.  Toria was very amused by this, and said, “It’s barking*, this wwoofing business!”  I pounced on her, “You are a natural punner!  You’ve just used the word barking to describe wwoofing!”
(France, September 2011)


*  For those unfamiliar with this abbreviation, the full version is “barking mad”.

Linguistic dexterity (London)

Three decades ago, one would see on the London Tube (underground) a sign just over the door that said: Obstructing the doors can cause delay and can be dangerous.  Someone came along and scratched out the appropriate letters so that the sign then read: Obstruct the doors cause delay and be dangerous.
Note:  I do not approve of vandalism, nor incitement of trouble-making behaviour.  This is purely an observation of what clever things one can do with language just by moving/deleting a few letters, like the matchsticks puzzles where moving one stick (or two) can change the whole display altogether.

(London, 1977)

English as found in London (China / London)

In the last couple of years at least, people have been forwarding photographs of signs, notices and menus in China (among other countries), written in incomprehensible English with hilarious results.  The typos, while professionally unforgivable, are at least understandable in the sense that they might be due to a copy-typist who didn’t know any English at all.  The original translation, however, is definitely unforgivable in most, if not all, of the cases--a lot of them read like the translator had looked up each word in the dictionary and cobbled the Chinese sentence together in English.  In this day and age, there must be a Westerner somewhere in China one can approach to help out on this front.  (Some friends suggested that they might have indeed consulted a Westerner but the Westerner had a wicked sense of humour, i.e., it’s more fun to keep the English all ungrammatical and a bit nonsensical.)  The published author of a compilation of some of these Chinglish signs put forward a few theories in his foreword to try and explain this persistent lack of professionalism: one was the issue of face--someone in the firm might know a little English, so it’d be insulting to him/her to consult an outsider; the other was arrogance, with the translator thinking s/he knows enough not to have to consult an outsider.
However stupid that kind of attitude might be (that author’s theories feel right to me, someone who has seen a lot of Chinese behaviour in my 58 years as a Chinese), at least the poor English is produced in a non-English-speaking country.  How does one, however, account for things like the following (just to name a few) found in London, the capital of the birthplace of the language: 

Served with 2 Slice Bread (spotted in a café in Dalston)
2Egg & Chips (ditto)
Today Special (ditto)
Breakfast, lunch & dinners (ditto)
Fish and chip
Advanced notice (about delays due to roadworks)
Male toilet (notably at Piccadilly Circus, which is full of visitors from abroad)
Female toilet (ditto)
(Holiday advert) Laying in the sun (spotted at Gatwick Airport, 05 Aug 2011)
All kind of mobile unlock (spotted in Hackney)
All kind ham (spotted in Hackney, 01 Nov 2011)
There’s no excuse really, for, if one is not a native-speaker of English and needs to check one’s English for the signs cited above, there are even more native-speakers of English in London than in China.  Or are there...??

(London, October/November 2011)


More: 

Do not speak to or obscure the driver's vision while the bus is moving (sign on Bus 253, spotted 13 Nov 2011)

About a set of conjoined twins: "When one has their eyes closed, the other has their eyes open."  (heard on BBC Radio 4's programme of 15 Nov 2011)

The literacy (and numeracy) campaign (UK)

To beat the increasing literacy (and numeracy) problem, the authorities came up with a campaign called The 3 Rs: Reading, Writing and Arithmetic.  Yet, of the 3 Rs, only one is spelt with an R.  No wonder they have a literacy problem...


(UK, 1990s/early noughties)

It's more fun this way (London / France)

It was a Sunday in 1985 and a group of us were invited round to Adam’s for lunch.  After sitting at the table for a few hours, someone suggested we go and play croquet in the garden.  As it was winter, the days were short and it was very dark outside, so I said, “But it’ll be impossible to see in the dark.”  Someone else said, “It’s more fun this way!”
This is the approach I adopt with my visits to the French farm.  Not knowing the language (and to tell the truth, even if I did, their strong local accent would render all that knowledge practically useless anyway) means that I have to guess what they might be saying, waiting for key words to confirm my conjecture.  This makes eavesdropping a very interesting exercise, because they think I have zero French so they are quite free with their comments (about me or otherwise) and also because I have to learn not to give the game away when I do understand certain bits (cf. my other blog entry: The Italians in Prague) by remaining po-faced.  When the phone rings at lunch time, I immediately surmise it’s someone who knows them well, someone who will know they’ll be sitting down to lunch.  When the phone rings late’ish at night, I know it’ll be one of the two daughters, and the bisou uttered by Jeanette at the end of the call will provide confirmation (and double-confirmed when she then informs me it’s Colette or Isabelle).


(London, 1985; France, 1996-2011)