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French workmen can often build their own language barrier

in Education and Training, Travel and Tourism

The villagers of our commune in the Lot et Garonne region of southwest France are very friendly – all the more so when one speaks, or at least tries to speak French. But sometimes there can be misunderstandings in interpretation.

Once we brought cheer to the local council, on a rather cold wet November day. Some months earlier, we had received a flyer, in French, from the Mairie which my wife Anne and I interpreted to mean that the commune wanted donations for ecological improvements by planting trees, cork oaks, to replace ones which had been lost in a storm.

We contributed but were puzzled when we were invited (again in French) to call at the Mairie “because your trees are ready”.

We concluded that there was probably some official handing over ceremony involving the donors so went along to the office and, sure enough, there were a number of cars outside. However, inside, there was only Nathalie, the Mairie’s secretary and a mini-forest of little cork oaks.

Voila M Cordiner, vos arbres (your trees),” she said. But, we explained, they were not our trees, they were donated to the commune.

Non,” insisted Nathalie, “they are for you to plant in your garden.”

I could see that she was trying to keep a straight face as Anne explained that we had thought they were to be planted on commune land, to beautify it. We had no room in our garden for 20 oak trees! Could we give them away to anyone?

Nathalie said that, by chance, there was a meeting of the village council taking place (the reason for the extra cars) and she would ask if any of them were interested.

She promptly exited upstairs to the council chamber and a moment later there was a huge guffaw of laughter from on high before she returned with one of the young farmers, who said that he would be very pleased to accept them. I suspect that he and the secretary had a good giggle after we left.

On another occasion I obviously failed to make myself clear to Jacques, our mason. We returned one year having previously confidently commissioned him to start the conversion of the barn in our absence, but he had made a door (to nowhere) where we had wanted a window. It opened on to a drop of about six feet, into a field. When I explained the error he was undaunted.

Pas de probleme. C’est ma faute (mistake),” he said, and proceeded to convert his “faute” into a window with a delightful recessed window seat below, using a beautiful piece of old oak beam for which I had been wanting to find a purpose.

I was not alone in not making myself clear in French. Every autumn, before leaving their maison secondaire, a British couple we knew would put items of value – kitchenware, television set and the like – up in their loft for safekeeping.

One year, they ordered work to be done in their absence by their plasterer, telling him in bad French that they wanted the entire ceiling plastered. On their return, they found that the hatch had disappeared. The entire ceiling had been plastered all right, including over the hatch. It had been so well done that the couple had some difficulty locating it.

Another case of inadequate information transfer was when an English friend asked her plumber, as he was about to depart mid-morning, if he had finished installation of the upstairs bath.

Yes, he said, he would finish the downstairs one the following day because he had to rush off to an urgence (emergency).

These now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t manoeuvres remind one of the Chinese acrobats who dash back and forth across the stage keeping the plates spinning on sticks.

“Never mind,” thought the lady, “at least there’s one operational bath”, and while she left the tiler working on the downstairs bathroom floor, she decided to have her first bath in her new home.

She luxuriated in a copious one and was quietly drying herself when she heard a commotion from below. At first she thought that there must be just another ouvrier (workman) crisis, until the somewhat alarming banging on her bathroom door indicated something more serious.

Quickly donning a robe she opened the door to be met by a very agitated and very wet tiler. All his work in the bathroom below had been flooded. It quickly became obvious that, when the lady had unplugged her bath, the bathwater had exited from an unconnected waste pipe in the downstairs bathroom.

“But the bath was installed Madame,” said the plumber the next day. “You did not ask me if it could be used.”

Good artisans, always in demand, usually have several projects running at the same time. This can lead to irritatingly time-consuming movement of equipment between jobs.

We would always try to be on hand to watch our ouvriers leave for lunch. If the cement mixer was hitched up to the van, we could be sure that they would not be back after the meal.

Sometimes we would miss their departure and they would be gone, mixer and all, without a by your leave, and we would have to telephone their patron in the evening (this was in the pre-cell phone days, of course) to be told that there had been some urgence which had necessitated an immediate change of plans. These “emergencies” were frequent.

Perhaps the most imaginative excuse for suddenly deserting our project was made by the young mason,who succeeded Jacques on his retirement.

He explained that he had had to down tools chez nous because the bridge to the cemetery in his village had collapsed and he had to repair it to enable the hearse to cross for an internment the next day!

These examples illustrate that even some knowledge of the French language might not always be enough to get a full understanding with your contractor.

One has to be sure that he comprehends the question or instructions. Otherwise one has to come to terms with these sort of happenings but they are a constant (and often amusing) part of the way of life in this region of rural France.


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