I have been living in France now for 12 years and my French is ok. Only ok! It should be so much better than it is but sadly it isn’t. There are many reasons why I haven’t accelerated to the point of fluency but I won’t bore you with the details. Suffice to say that I am always working hard to improve. I’m often complemented by French friends who haven’t seen me for a while and by people that I have never met before, who have no idea that I’ve been languishing here for a dozen years and think that for an English person I speak better French than they could ever speak in English. The complements are great and extremely flattering but they lull me into a quiet and smug sense of achievement and I start believing that this is it. I’m almost fluent; I’m reaching that point of no return. The next thing I know I’ll be reading Proust and Camus in their ‘version originale’, I’ll be dreaming in French, there’ll be no stopping me. But then! I trip myself up and say something really stupid and make a most basic mistake: Like the other day at work.
I’m working in the local hotel for the summer season. The work is very physical; each day is like an intense session at the gym with no let up. And it’s hot, really, really hot – this is Provence and the average daily temperature is about 32 degrees. Add to this the misery of the irrepressible ‘bouffée chaleur’ and I can tell you that most days I feel like a bubbling hot cauldron. So, at work, I was chatting to a colleague (female and much younger), we were in the kitchen and I was feeling particularly hot and so I said quite simply “merde, je suis chaude!’ The look on her face was priceless. She choked on her coffee as she burst out laughing. I didn’t get it, not at all. All I had done was to express how hot I was. She shut the kitchen door so we couldn’t be heard; I too had started to laugh, even though I didn’t know why. She looked at me and said that I can’t say that, I mustn’t say ‘je suis chaude!'. She explained that I must say ‘j’ai chaud’. I should say ‘I have hot’ not ‘I am hot.’ To say that ‘I am hot’ she told me was to say “hey baby I’m HOT’ ‘I’m up for it’ ‘I want sex’ ‘let’s go, I’m ready’ etc etc… I’m so glad that she corrected me and I’m so glad that it was her I was talking to and not my boss, (older and male).
Etre et avoir, the basic verbs, you think because they are basic that they are simple but they catch me out when I least expect it. Usually it’s an innocent mistake but I need to be careful because a mere slip of the tongue can land you in all sorts of trouble.