Every time I go to France, it is my ambition to be mistaken for a French woman. This is not so much to do with my linguistic powers, but with the ability to appear effortlessly elegant. I’m not sure why I feel this compulsion, given that I’m usually such a scruff, but feel it I do. And I’m on holiday, so what the heck, I’ll self-indulge.
So I’ve planned my holiday wardrobe carefully, packing crisp, simple linen shifts (well, the two that I possess, anyway). A trilby serves as a sunhat – a regrettable necessity for my English fair skin. (I don’t suppose that French women wear sunhats unless they have to). Simple leather flats, just a couple of pieces of jewellery and a totebag complete the look for a stroll down to the market through the ancient cobbled streets of Senlis, half an hour north of Paris.
When I pause at the tourist office en route to ask whether there’s a swimming pool in the town, the helpful assistant, Raphaelle, asks me which country I come fro. I experience a fillip of triumph that my accent is not immediately identifiable. This gives me the confidence to decline her kind offer to converse in English.
Having established the pool’s whereabouts and opening hours and that it’s découverte (open air) – a welcome discovery on this hothouse of a day – I head down the hill to the market. Carefully I choose the best strawberries in the most promising barquette , hoping I’m indistinguishable from the milling French housewives. In my exchange with the stallholder, I take a different approach to my grandmother’s tried and trusted “speak English in a very loud voice”. Instead, I speak French in a very loud voice. I not only to sound more confident but feel more confident too. To my delight, the old farmer running the stall treats me just the same as his other customers.
“I think I’m getting away with it,” I smile to myself. Even so, I am filled with admiration for those war-time spies who successfully infiltrate a foreign country, passing themselves off as native. Travelling as I am with my husband and his unique approach to the French language, recollections of the English policeman’s comical Franglais in “‘Allo, ‘Allo” are never far from my mind.
On my way back to the camper van, I browse the rails outside a couple of dress shops, now selling off their summer ranges at a discount. I note contentedly that the most popular style is very similar to the dress I’m wearing.
In a little cloud of self-satisfaction, I potter back up the cobblestones. I’m reaching the outskirts of the shopping area when a white Renault Clio pulls up alongside me.
“Madame, s’il vous plait?”
A pleasant looking Frenchman leans out of the window to peer up at me, enquiringly.
“Bonjour, monsieur,” I venture, loudly.
He fires off a rapid, complex query as to how to find a particular address in Senlis. My smile disappears. He might as well be asking directions to Mars. I’m fooling no-one after all, not even myself.
“Desolee, monsieur,” I falter in a small, low voice. “Je suis une étrangère.”
I am a stranger/foreigner.
He nods and waves in sympathy before driving on. My confidence shattered, I take a wrong turn, lose my way, and for the next fifteen minutes, I am Lost In France. When the camper van with its GB sticker eventually appears on the horizon, this tiny piece of home territory is a very welcome sight indeed.