The Dangers of Colloquial Expressions
One morning while sitting in the staff room, I eavesdropped on a conversation between my eccentric German teacher and le proviseur, our headmaster, with whom he seemed to be on familiar terms. I didn’t really understand everything they were discussing, but at one stage my friend exploded with a ‘Mais tu te fous de ma gueule!’ Understanding this to mean something like ‘You’re pulling my leg!’ I conscientiously noted it down. Now that evening I’d been invited to dinner by an English teacher colleague – a rather prim and proper middle-aged lady (my leftist friend referred to her as la petite bourgeoise) with whom I always took pains to be on my best behaviour. During the meal I had the distinct impression that her husband (he seemed to delight in showing off his wit) was making gentle fun of my accent. Considering this the ideal moment to use my recently-acquired expression I burst out in a tone of mock anger: ‘Mais tu te fous de ma gueule!’ Even though they did their best not to show it, a slight sagging of the mouth on both their parts made me suspect I had somewhere infringed the rules of verbal propriety – so much so that the following day I described the incident to my eccentric friend. With considerable amusement he explained that what I’d said was not only colloquial but vulgar, for it was nearer in meaning (he spoke English well) to ‘You’re taking the piss!’ than ‘You’re pulling my leg!’
The village boasted what went under the name of an épicerie, situated at a corner of the square next to my friend’s house and more or less opposite my farmhouse. Not only was it a grocer’s but it could equally have been a hardware shop as the articles sold ranged from tools and paint to pans and crockery, and I even saw a heating stove very much like the one in my bedroom on sale. It also had an adjoining bar with something vaguely resembling a terrace outside; and upstairs there was a small restaurant. Despite having acquired by association the reputation of suffering from the same mental deficiency as my German teacher friend, this must have coincided so much with everybody’s pre-conceived idea of the mad-dog Englishman that it didn’t in the least prevent the lady owner from inviting me to eat there one midday. She beckoned me to sit on a bench at a large oil-cloth covered table, occupied on both sides by three or four locals. After greeting me with a polite ‘Bonjour monsieur,’ they then resumed their conversation (ignoring me completely) in a language which, to my great dismay, I didn’t understand a word of. It was with some relief that the owner later informed me they were speaking the local patois. Their reluctance to communicate, however, was, I felt, more due to deep reserve than any feeling of hostility. For this was perhaps the first time they’d ever been in close contact with a foreigner and they were unsure of how to address me. This was again brought home to me when I had a drink with my exchange partner’s brother, Daniel, in the grocery shop bar where we met one of his paysan friends. During the half hour or so the three of us were together, never once did he speak to me directly, but always with a ‘Dis à ton copain que … ‘ (Tell your pal that …) or a ‘Demande à ton copain si …’ (Ask your pal if … ) through the intermediary of Daniel.
At weekends and during the school holidays we shared activities not normally associated with village life in the depths of rural France. No doubt inspired by his regular cohabitation with the American Indians, my eccentric friend soon suggested we begin archery contests. This consisted in us standing in the middle of the small village square and shooting arrows at a scarecrow target attached to a post some 50 metres away in an adjoining field. These became regular occurrences, and no doubt served not only to reinforce the villagers’ conviction that he was out of his mind, but also to endorse the similar judgement they had applied to his English friend.
In view of the rudimentary toilet facilities available in the farmhouse I asked my eccentric friend one day if I could avail myself of his bathroom shower. Though he readily gave his assent, he did suggest that before I did so, I might like to experience the deep-cleansing effects of a Red Indian bath. Feeling morally obliged to comply, I followed him to the wigwam which was permanently erected in his front garden. Inside, I was surprised to discover a large hole. Under his direction we then proceeded to make a large fire. Once it had burned down we placed ten or so blackened stones piled up nearby (they had obviously served the same purpose many times before) into the now glowing embers. When he judged they were hot enough he put on a pair of thick gardening gloves and gingerly carried each one into the wigwam where he carefully placed them in the hole. After closing the tent we waited ten minutes during which time he entertained me with a Red Indian war dance and chant around the fire. We then stripped down to our underpants and seated ourselves cross-legged inside. And after spending a long half hour sweating profusely in the stifling, dry heat he finally suggested that, since the stones were now cooling, I went and had my shower.