Most village markets in France are orderly, traditional and predictable. Sensibly dressed women arrive with shopping baskets, older men often sport a beret or cap to ward off the morning chill. There will be stalls selling vegetables, a cheese van, a saucisson stall, a pan- Asian fast food van, to which the French flock – vive la différence – and perhaps a cake stall, featuring this season’s walnuts. And so when the knife sharpening man turned up at the weekly market in Monpazier, dressed in colourful clothes and working under the old covered hall, I was instantly drawn to his stall. I asked him if I could take his photo, although the conditional and polite part of this question, the ‘could I or may I’, suddenly escaped my memory. He happily obliged despite these omissions and mentioned that if someone takes his photo without asking first, he would not give his permission. As my mind slowly processed this information, I noticed the roughly painted anarchist sign on his leather apron.
And then it happened. I stupidly inquired, in my primitive French, which is always stuck in the present tense, about why he wore this sign. I may have simply asked, ‘Pourqui’, while pointing.
He replied passionately, rapidly and fairly vocally, why he was proud to wear this sign. I could follow bits of his response: there was mention of the new French President Macron and then he concluded, “But you don’t understand, do you. You can’t respond, can you. Can you speak?” I’m standing there paralysed and the words won’t come. “Je… je… je... ” A crowd is gathering behind me and he continues his anarchist rave. “Je… Je.” And I wanted to say, “Oui, Je comprende ” or something agreeable, like “d’accord”, just so I could run away and save face but I feel like I’ve just left the frontal lobotomy ward.” Je…Je...”. I want to agree that the handsome Macron bloke has turned out to be a huge disappointment, so much for middle ground, but what can you expect from a former investment banker, and do you mind pouring me a glass of wine even though it’s only 10.30 am, because I really need one now. But nothing comes out of my mouth, nothing, until eventually I mumble je suis désolé and I’m feeling like a total fuckwit. I haven’t even had time to get out Mt T’s favourite opening line and gap filler, “Excusez-moi, mon français est très mal” to which I usually add behind his shoulder, “you mean c’est merde”, c’est tres merde.”
The knife sharpening man is laughing now, enjoying his wine, probably not the first for the day, and so we exchange drinking salutations, salut, santé, salute, chin chin, na zdrowie proost, sláinte, cheers ( mate) and so on. It’s an exchange of sorts.
Travellers, like me, who have a smattering of French, tend to stick to simple conversations, which hover around known contexts and commerce such as buying food or goods, and include a working grasp of salutations and courtesies, all limited to the present tense with an occasional flirtation with the simple past tense and with an excellent grasp of nouns but not so many irregular verbs. Is it possible to have a real conversation without a working knowledge of the multi- tiered tenses that we use everyday without thinking, the past perfect and imperfect tenses, the future and historic tenses, all woven together, like a language knitting pattern, with fancy stitches that include the conditional, the imperative, the reflexive and the subjunctive moods used in past tenses, stitched up with the gerund and embroidered with the nuances of language that involve irony, idiom and cultural understandings? I think not. I stand accused, sir. I would love to sit down with you and have a chat and a wine, but I can’t. Well not in French anyway. Cheers.