A Smile from a Stranger


By Avril Charleton, in France

French we’re told, is the language of love.  Everything and everyone sounds sexier in a French accent; including that infamous cartoon skunk, Pepéle Pew. 

How then does it work when you move to France? 

Suddenly I have visions of Peter Sellers in the ‘Pink Panther’ movies and his search for a room for the night in a hotel.  The English ‘room’ and the French ‘rheum’ are remarkably similar!  One however, means a heavy cold!

I was once told of a man in a supermarket searching for bread.  Fruitlessly he searched and each time he was directed to the raw meat fridges.  “Lapin!” he was heard to cry, “I need lapin!”.  Not until some helpful passerby heard him did he realise that lapin was exactly why he had spend confounded moments in front of a cold shelf.  He had been asking for rabbit!  What he should have asked for was ‘du pain’.   

Of course it can work the other way; I’ve seen many a French restaurant menu offer ‘pan roasted duck breast in a puddle of sauce’!

The British are moving over here in great numbers and whilst France has stoically refused to acknowledge that English is the worlds first language, it has realised that some things have just got be done to attract the large numbers of ex-pats with their deep pockets. 

The French then are taking English lessons. 

It’s always joyous to hear ‘tank you very mush’… uttered tentatively with a shy smile by your local baker.  Of course that’s normally after you’ve asked him for some sliced rabbit! 

Sometimes however there are no words required. 

I knew a man who had flown in the planes over France during the Second World War.  His planes carried not bombs, but much needed supplies for the French people. 

Years later, his son and daughter-in-law opened a restaurant here in France and the locals soon got to know of this quiet, but charismatic mans’ existence.  He became an honorary member of “Les Anciens Combatants”, and would be invited to eat with them at their dinners and to stand with them on the anniversary of Armistice Day. 

He met those men who, if they had not received his cargo, had certainly received that of others like him.  They talked of the planes, their capabilities and of the men and women who would run out into the fields in the dead of night to retrieve those crates with their parachutes, all the while under threat of discovery by their enemies. 

They spoke of the dangers and of bravery.  They talked for hours like this.  Old men, their faces lined with the stories of their youth and not a word of common language between them. 

With this year being the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War I’m reminded that there are many British servicemen buried in foreign fields all over France.  

Their passing marked with pristine white crosses, these young men and the people who lovingly tend their graves of 100 years before, with perhaps hardly a word of common language between them are proof maybe, that at the end of the day there’s really no such thing as a language barrier after all.

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