The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

If you want to practise French, you might well be better off doing so in a country like Belgium or Canada, rather in France. The French, we are told, are less accepting of casual mangling of their language. So goes common wisdom. In my experience, speaking a language one is not fully fluent in requires so much effort, confidence, and self-will that the disdain of a native is only a marginal irritant. And, anyway, the French have been as kind to my attempts at their language as the Walloons.

One’s choice of language to use in a country is paramount, though. Woe betide you if you try your French on a German-speaker in Switzerland, or Russian on a Czech granny, or English on any self-important bureaucrat in Europe. A few years ago, in Zurich, I needed to extend my visa’s validity by a day, and I went to the relevant police office, where, seeing large signs in English, I thought the officer would be able to respond to my questions in that language.

“Good morning,” I said, grinning winningly. “Could I have my visa extended by a day, please?”

“Ahrwehrgrrbrrssachnach. Ptooey,” spat the flunky snootily.

“Sorry, I don’t understand,” said I. Do you speak English?”

“That’s better,” said the flunky. “If I were to come to America and speak German, would you understand me?”

I pointed wordlessly at the signs. The flunky sniffed. He then extended the visa by stamping hard on my passport, and waved me away.

My Swiss pals were outraged when I recounted this story. “Some of these police are Nazis,” said one of them.

A while earlier, tramping around Prague, I stopped to buy water from a little old lady. She spoke no English, as was made amply clear by her irritated muttering when an Australian chappie stopped to ask her for directions. She was not happy with German either. When I – recognising the similarity between Czech and Russian numbers – pronounced 20 as ‘dvadzat’, she snapped, “Nyet Russki.” So I left.

More fun was to be had in Luzern where I waylaid sundry strangers and attempted to engage them in French conversation. (Basically, I wanted directions to the Lion.) All of them shook their heads, replied in German, and then noting my confusion, switched to English. Clearly the Germanic areas of old Suisse are not too fond of their French compatriots. This is entirely understandable, given the way tempers rise in Madras when I speak Hindi to the locals. Linguistic chauvinism is always great fun, except when it turns violent and people get stabbed in the kidneys.

I took an autorickshaw once from Madras Central Station to the IIT, and when the autowallah tried to bargain up the fare, I replied magnificently, “Kannada gothilla.” He gaped superbly, and I seized the moment to slip away.

In Brussels, I had a representative conversation at the railway ticket office.

“Je voodray un bilyay allay sample à Delft,” I said.

“Witsongtrongfrong,” said the ticket man.

There was a pause a few seconds long as we looked expectantly at each other.

“Err, pardon?” I said.

He burst out laughing.

“830 francs,” he said.

“See voo parlay longtemong, je peh voo comprongdrr,” I said, stiffly.

“Huit. Cent. Trente. Francs.” said the man, grinning from ear to ear. “That’s the problem with guidebooks. It tells you what to say in a language, but you never understand when they reply, eh?”


Space Bar said...

that kannada gotilla was masterly, i tell you. masterly. i will use it the next time.

Maddy said...

good one, enjoyed reading it.. reminded me - tried watching a movie called 'tandoori love' which was terrible, apparently covered the story of an Indian cook in Switzerland..

Fëanor said...

SB: thanks. you need to combine that mastery with athletic prowess!

Maddy: cheers! what's this tandoori love, then? a swiss movie?

Shefaly said...


It depends. Really it does.

When I went to Prague, I spoke rather an uncomfortable amount of German and it made things easier because they do not really speak much English.

Is it possible that the Swiss Fremdenpolizei guy spoke Swiss German back to you? Not ruling out his intrinsic meanness though. After a while, one gets used to it. I used to hear it but reply in Hoch Deutsch and they would in Schweizer Deutsch and so on.

Also depends on where in France/ CH. In Alsace, German is better. In Luzern, of course, German is better. Would you go to Lausanne and ask for directions in German? So why would you use French in Luzern? Puzzling.

While I do not know of Tandoori Love, I wonder if you ate at Hiltl in Zurich? Good Indian food at the 110 yr old restaurant near Haupt Bahnhof. Food needs no translation, or does it?

Fëanor said...

Shefaly: he might have spoken Swiss-German to me - I couldn't tell the difference. I have no German, you see. As for speaking French in Luzern, why not? French is a national lingo in Switzerland, and someone ought to be able to speak it in Luzern as well. (Anyway, I was just needling the locals to see which of them would bother to respond in French. It was my own unscientific poll on linguistic chauvinism. I was on holiday and had a lot of time on my hands, heh).

Nope, never eaten any desi food in Suisse. I've had frightful experiences attempting Indian food in random countries. Better to stick to their local stuff, however uninspired.

Maddy said...

hilti food is good. A little aimed to the gujju though..There was another one i forgot..

I fast forwarded the 'english' movie. it is about a cook who comes with a bollywood movie crew who lands up cooking in a swiss restaurant, falls for the barmaid etc...'orrible..

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