recently i was privileged enough to go overseas to france for a laparoscopic course. unlike my last trip to deepest coldest europe, this time there was only one other south african on the course, but, as luck would have it, it was the same guy who gave us all a laugh last time. i think the laugh might have been on us this time though.
it didn't take too much time in france to realize theirs is a totally foreign culture to ours. what they are is simply called rude and obnoxious in our country. after a while one gets used to it and can only but look forward to returning home. however when there you sort of have to endure it. our usual south african responses to their behaviour might not go down too well.
the one night i went for a walk in the town (something not generally done in my country for safety reasons). at a stage towards the end of my walk i saw a quaint take-away place and decided to go in for a quick bite. i walked in. the place was totally empty except for the one single employee behind the counter standing with his back to me. he mumbled something in french which sounded to me like their usual greeting phrase, but only glanced up momentarily before he turned his back on me again. by this stage i was quite accustomed to being treated poorly by them so i greeted him back in two languages, both of which he probably understood just as well as i understood his french. he ignored me. i patiently waited for him to finish ignoring me. after a while he turned around and repeated his french phrase. i greeted him again, hiding my irritation well, i thought. i then went through the painful process of ordering something akin to a hamburger. he seemed to resist these attempts of mine, but finally took my order and got to work preparing it.
just about this time my south african colleague coincidentally walked past. he saw me in the small cafe and entered. i was just too grateful to see a friendly face and quite soon we were chatting away in a language there was no chance our french friend could understand. i informed him i had had difficulty with what i perceived as typical french rudeness but had managed to order something i was hoping would be a hamburger-esque thing. my friend greeted the guy in english and received the same french phrase i'd heard.
my friend then attempted to order something for himself to eat. it seemed to go even worse than it had with me. the menu was written on the wall so he simply pointed at an item. the french guy shook his head, indicating that that specific item was not available. not to be put off my friend moved from item to item, pointing to each one in turn and each time without joy. it was quite a comical scene to see him move systematically through the menu and be denied each time. after what must have been about the tenth item he selected, finally the guy indicated that he could supply it. my friend sighed, more from relief that the ordeal was over and we continued our light hearted conversation in our own language, somehow comforted in the knowledge that our words would confuse his ears as much as his did ours.
finally our food arrived and we tucked in.
while we were eating alone in that quaint french cafe late at night chatting in a language that reminded us of the open spaces of africa, probably too loudly for the refined french sentiment, something happened that gave me cause to reflect.
half way through our meal a local walked in. he greeted the guy behind the counter. the guy answered in the phrase that we had heard when we first came in. somehow hearing it just after the french greeting, it no longer sounded like the french greeting. just as i was wondering what he had actually said to us and therefore to this new local, the guy apologized and left. shortly after the same process repeated itself. someone came in, heard the phrase, said sorry and left. i then put it together.
the phrase obviously meant that the shop was closed. the whole time he had been ignoring us was more to do with him no longer being on duty than the usual french rudeness. i couldn't help laughing as i shared my suspicions with my colleague. i could just imagine what was going through his mind as he struggled to make himself understood to us;
"what is the quickest way i can get rid of these people that just refuse to leave? maybe if i just feed them then they will at least eat and go away."