Unsure in any language

When cultures collide it can leave some people feeling a little unsure of themselves. For a start, which language should you speak?

With the Brits, it was nearly always the same approach. Money was proffered, generally backed with a nervous smile and then a few tentative words: "Trois euros?" or "S'il vous plaît" or more often "Three euros?". Why so nervous? Well, I guess they couldn't be sure if we were British or French.

In an attempt to clear the house of the appalling clutter we've accumulated over the years, Trish and I had taken a stand at the EuroMayenne fair. This is run by an organisation of the same name created to foster cultural relationships between people of the Mayenne region and foreigners — with the latter being mostly Brits living locally.

The annual fair, held in the town of Mayenne, consists mainly of craftspeople selling their wares — farm honey, local liqueurs, artisan jewellery and the usual run of stuff you find at craft fairs anywhere. We took it as an opportunity to have a vide grenier: Trish wanted to clear out a small mountain of clothes while I flogged videos, books, CDs and miscellaneous, um, 'bric-a-brac' (that's the polite term for it).

We posted signs in French giving prices, pointing out that the clothes were secondhand, that the videos were PAL standard and that the dog, Zola, was not for sale. A high percentage of the visitors (as well as the stallholders) were French, although the fair always attracts a large number of Brits (hence the fish'n'chip van outside the main entrance).

That mix is what contributed to the slight tenativeness. Not on the part of the French — they would, quite rightly, just speak in French and expect us to understand. It's their country, after all. Some would happily switch to English when they discovered we were Brits — in fact, I think the event attracts French people eager to practice a foreign language.

For most Brits, it was slightly more difficult. There were some who would simply launch into English without bothering to check if it was understood: you see this behaviour frequently, not just at the fair but in shops and restaurants. There's a peculiar ugliness to it and it's on occasions like that we do our best to look French.

Fortunately, such arrogance was rare. For the most part, the Brits displayed a more genteel character. Most probably suspected that we were Brits too — after all, we were selling English-language books and videos. But there was an honourable reticence to make assumptions, hence the few faltering words that followed the proffered change.

When those words were in English, they were said with an implied, "I hope you don't mind me speaking English" and perhaps with the corollary of "you are British, aren't you?". A reponse in English normally brought a relieved smile. Of course, that simply encouraged me to reply in French leading to expressions of confusion or even panic. It was a long day and I needed some amusement.

When the words were in French, the expression said, "I hope this doesn't start a French conversation". Of course, it did. I couldn't help it. We'd bat a few French phrases back and forth until I'd let them off the hook with "you're welcome" or "hope you enjoy your videos", at which point I'd be treated to a sheepish grin.

The videos sold well, the books hardly at all. I hope this isn't an indication of the type of Brits moving here, but I fear it might be. On the other hand, at least the majority displayed exemplary manners.

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