Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Stinking Aloud

Laurie Taylor channels casual "racist" Manuel Estimulo in his latest newsletter for his Radio 4 programme:

‘La même encore’, Gerald said to the waiter, waiving his hands across our beer glasses. The waiter, I was glad to observe, decided not to understand Gerald’s French and instead came over to our table for a confirmation of the order. ‘La même encore’, said Gerald again, indicating our empty glasses with an over-elaborate sweep of the hand. ‘Deux pressions.’ This at last seemed enough for the waiter who nodded and disappeared back into the dark interior of the harbour café.

‘It’s funny, you know’, said Gerald. ‘But down here in this part of Provence the waiters see so few English people that they’re really surprised when one of them addresses them in French. They almost choose not to understand. That’s the French for you. Fiercely independent.’

It occurred to me then, as it had already done several times during this fortnight’s holiday in Bandol with Gerald and his wife and their two booming children, that it was not so much surprise which had occasioned the waiter’s incomprehension, as Gerald’s accent. Even though the words he spoke were French he had used exactly the same intonation for ‘La même encore’ as he would have done for ‘Same again, Landlord’, back in his local village pub. (The one in Kent with the personal tankards hanging up behind the bar).

And this was only the tip of my concern. For although I’d been initially grateful when Gerald and his wife had offered me a room in their Provencal villa following my divorce, I’d realised after only a few hours in France that the price I’d have to pay for my accommodation was complete acquiescence with my host’s obsessively expressed opinion that everything in France was superior to its equivalent in England.

I didn’t have too much difficulty allowing that the French trains were better – ‘do you realise that if this train were running in England you could get from Euston to Manchester in less than an hour?’ I was also happy to go along with his views on French motorways (‘imagine how many road works there’d be on a stretch like this back in England’), his celebration of minor French towns (‘imagine finding a place as small as this in England with its own town hall), and the manners of French shopkeepers (‘imagine how much better life would be in England if every shop assistant said ‘Bonjour’ and ‘Merci’).

But I mentally drew the line at praising every identical piece of grilled fish that was delivered to my table in portside restaurants. (Was Gerald deliberately failing to notice the revolting splodge of overcooked vegetables which lay alongside the repetitive fillet of dorade?’ And I could only sit in silence while he broke off a lump of baguette at supper and wondered once again why the British chose not to bake this over-floury, largely indigestible and frequently stale, variety of bread.

I also had to bite my tongue, as I was given the news that once again there was something special about drinking French wine in France, that only the French could make proper goat’s cheese, and that only in French markets was it possible to buy tomatoes with that special French taste.

For two weeks I was also forced to ignore the foul manners of French drivers, the dog excrement on every pavement, the abysmal quality of French music and popular entertainment, and a degree of bureaucracy which had me queuing for a whole half hour at the local post office in order to retrieve a fax that had been sent from home.

As I finally waved goodbye to Gerald and what he liked to call his ‘famille’, I allowed myself to wonder why he and so many others found it so necessary to embrace and partially invent a culture other than their own in order to make a mere holiday enjoyable.

‘A bientôt’, Gerald shouted from the villa door as I heaved my case into the backseat of the taxi. ‘Goodbye’, I shouted back. And the very word seemed like an act of liberation.

Mixing and matching culture. What to celebrate. And what to deplore. All that when I meet the author of a new book on cultural hybridity. That’s at four o’clock today or after the midnight news on Sunday or on our readily downloadable podcast.

Also today. Tariq Ali on the convergences between politics and literature.


No comments: