Sunday, 29 January 2017

A scary boss in France

Moissac (France) - August

        The main aim of my trip, as with all my European travels during my time at University, was to improve my language speaking skills. To this end, my host, Dominique, had found me a job. So the Monday morning, my first full day in Moissac, she drove me to my place of work. I had envisaged something on the cushy side, helping in a library perhaps, a job in which I could practice talking French with colleagues and customers. Therefore, when we drove up to an industrial estate and parked by an enormous building, my heart sank. It turned out I was to work in a factory packing plums.

Newspaper delivery girl          

        Don’t get me wrong, I am no stranger to hard work. When I was fourteen I had a weekly newspaper round in the UK. For those who have never tried it, delivering papers door to door takes a surprisingly long time. It took me six hours to deliver three hundred and fifty papers. And for this I received the princely sum of six pounds. For every additional leaflet I delivered I received an extra one pound fifty. Happy days. Letterboxes became my worst enemy. My fingers took many a battering from lethal letterboxes just lying in wait for their next unsuspecting victim. By the end of my round, my hands would be covered in black print and several small cuts. Dogs became something to fear. A house which always had an Alsatian lying in wait in the front garden never received a newspaper from me. At another house, a savage dog would hurl itself at the door and start to shred the paper (and my fingers if I wasn’t careful) as soon as I began to push it through the letterbox. I lasted a year until I decided it was time to move further up the professional ladder.

Shop assistant

            I started working every Saturday in a small food shop in my local town. Most of my time was spent on the delicatessen counter, serving fresh meats, cheeses and pies. I worked from nine in the morning till half past six in the evening with only half an hour break for lunch. When the shop closed at half past five, I would go and sit on the toilet just to give my legs a rest. For the following hour, I would clean the deli and sweep and mop the whole of the shop floor. At £1.80 an hour, it paid better than my newspaper round but it was still a measly amount even for 1997/8.

French forms

            So, when Dominique parked by a factory in Moissac, it was not the thought of manual labour that bothered me. What did concern me was how much French I was going to get to speak against the backdrop of whirring noisy machinery. I mean, that was the whole reason I was putting myself through this in the first place! My host left me with the boss, a tallish middle-aged slim woman with short brown hair and a no-nonense look about her. We sat down in her office and she pulled out a form.

            “Name?” she enquired briskly.
            “Clare”, I replied.
            “That’s your name?” she asked harshly.
            “Yes,” I replied slightly confused. 
             She wrote it on the form.
            “Forename?” she then asked.

            Ah. I had completely forgotten that in France, when filling in forms, and on envelopes for example, surname usually comes first. In my defence, surname in French is normally “nom de famille” but she had used only the abbreviated term of “nom”. I explained my mistake.

            “I hope you’re going to understand what work you have to do here!” she barked.

          I had clearly not got off to the best of starts. We finished the form with a few more hiccups – I didn’t know the full address of where I was staying, I did not have a French social security number and I did not have a French bank account. It was clear to see the boss was thinking I was more trouble than I was worth. Still, she led me through vast room after room until we came to the one I was to work in...

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Greeting the French way

Moissac (France) - August  

            In August, I travelled to France where I would be staying for a month with a friend of my aunt’s. Dominique lived in a quaint village about an hour from Toulouse.

            The first evening, my host told her son Luc to let me accompany him to his friend’s house. He was a good-looking 21 year old with dark hair and an extremely sullen demeanour. He didn’t seem overly enamoured with his mother’s suggestion (or rather order), although it was difficult to judge; he didn’t seem particularly enamoured with anything. I had the impression he was still going through the grunting adolescent phase, although the grunt is more of a ‘bah’ in French. The short car journey to his friend’s house was undertaken in complete silence. I found it difficult to strike up a conversation in a foreign language and Luc didn't say a word.

The kissing rigmarole

When we arrived at his friend’s one bedroom flat, there were about ten people already there ranging from 16 to 22 years old. Then began the palaver of having to kiss every person there on each cheek. This can be an excruciatingly embarrassing ritual, particularly when the people you are greeting are strangers. Firstly, it is quite possible that you both turn your heads the same way and thus risk bumping noses or, worse, kissing on the lips. Perhaps there is a set way you should turn? I’m not sure. Secondly, as I discovered during my travels in France, the number of kisses varies between two and four according to the region. So once again you can end up bumping heads if you pull away at the wrong time.
After this rigmarole was over, we all sat down in a circle on the floor in the small lounge.  For the rest of the evening I sat on the floor bored out of my brain. Not once did anybody make any attempt to talk to me. In fact, the whole atmosphere felt rather hostile. 

An unexpected discovery

After about two hours, out of sheer boredom, I asked if I could use the bathroom. Everyone shot each other furtive glances and I wondered if I had made some dreadful faux pas. Should you not use the toilet in somebody’s house in France? Nevertheless, the host directed me to the bathroom. I walked in and it was then that things began to become a little clearer. There, sitting next to the toilet, was a plant under a bright fluorescent light. I am no expert in such matters but I had a pretty good guess of what it was. I found it rather amusing now I understood the group’s horror at my request to use the bathroom. Did this also explain their unfriendly nature towards me? Was my presence preventing them from spending the evening how they had intended? Taking my place once more on the lounge floor, I decided it was easiest not to mention my discovery. Every pair of eyes was on me but when it became clear that I wasn’t going to say anything, I could see them all visibly relax. Still, the atmosphere remained cold and I was relieved when Luc finally drove me home and I could escape.