Ode to an expat waitress: bumpy, clumsy and inarticulate

There is a strange phenomenon in work that I hadn’t expected, in the dynamic between me and English speaking customers. I had imagined myself chattering confidently with such customers, all of us conspiratorially celebrating our shared Anglicisation. However, I had not factored in the motivations of said customers, who have no interest in conspiring with me, and fall broadly into two categories. There are the ones who are not confident in their French, who assume that I am French and are terrified of offending my French sensibilities by speaking English. They look at me nervously and uncertainly when I speak to them in English, convinced that I am internally en faisant du jugement. So we continue a charade in which we all together pretend to speak French, because we are in France, even though we all have a perfectly good common language at our disposal. The second category, the ones who speak better French than me, are belligerently insistent on demonstrating their fluent French at all times, and are having none of me with my hopeful glances of ‘en anglais, si vous préférez??’ They talk even louder in French and look at me directly and uncomfortably in the eye, as if to convey ‘WE ARE SPEAKING FRENCH, BECAUSE WE SPEAK GOOD FRENCH AND DON’T YOU DARE INSULT ME BY SPEAKING TO ME IN ENGLISH’. And so, the charade continues…

By contrast, all the Actually French people are truly baffled by my accent -I dread to think of what I must sound like -and frequent ‘guess the accent’ games ensue at the tables. They almost invariably sidle up to me and ask if I am Italian. Naturally I am highly flattered that I might be mistaken for any Mediterranean type, but respond with pleasure that I am in fact irlandaise. Unless of course they mean the overweight Mediterranean types, with the hairy faces… then I am distinctly insulted. But Karim tells me that it is definitely because “ils parlent français comme toi”-“they speak French like you.” If this wasn’t followed by so much laughing I wouldn’t mind too much… But I might just try and confuse things anyway by increasing my hand gestures and throwing in the odd “Prego”. That will drive the customers completely over the edge no doubt, during their four hour approach to a chocolate crêpe. (Four bites, is what it would take me -four bites).

Otherwise, petit à petit, I am getting better at the job. Now this is by no means a smooth or graceful progression -no no. Bumpy, clumsy and inarticulate would be a more accurate description of this non-linear process. I’m thinking of it as a ‘mistakes by elimination’ approach -it is generally easier for me to attempt something the wrong way and wait for the panicked “Sarah non, non, non!” cries of my co-workers, than to figure out the French way to ask how to do it. I do find their reactions a bit overly dramatic. My plan to mop up a small spill with a serviette was met with a three-person chorus of dismay that would normally be merited only by a an attempt to set fire to a table full of small children and puppies. All of said chorus, incidentally, we’re sitting on their arses watching me, but as all of them have worked there for at least 700 years, they are all entitled to sit around watching my every move. And criticising it. However, soon I will have made ALL of the mistakes, and there will be none left to make. And then I will be perfect.

Walking to and from work as it happens has become one of the pleasures of my day. In the mornings and the day time, I like to walk by the river, from where I can see the mountains and do my daily assessment of how much snow has fallen. (Very little for the moment, but it’s pretty nonetheless). In the evenings, I take the alternative, and slightly more populated route, through the town. The particular part of town I walk through is quite an old part, and takes in a wide beautiful square, surrounded by a large cathedral, the theatre and a few tourist restaurants. (I have a job here now, which entitles me to distance myself from and judge said tourists). The rest of the way home brings me down narrow cobbled streets, which make a pleasing clunky echo when my boots meet the pavement on my walk home after a night shift. The buildings are high and traditional, and I clunk away the time imagining all the glamorously French things that must have happened here throughout history. I have this very vague and mixed up fantasy image that amalgamates misplaced historical icons, such as Marie Antoinette and Frank Sinatra, having a great time together on these streets. Smoking cigars in long holders and consorting with glamorous guys n dolls at the picture houses and such like. I know my fantasies have absolutely zero links to reality, but they are my fantasies and I’m keeping them. They make me happy.