Sat in the cafe, after finishing a modest breakfast of scrambled egg on fried bread, I had begun rolling a cigarette, as is customary, to smoke while I walked back to work. As I completed this task, an elderly white haired man seated at the table next to mine leant forward, extending a shaking hand, placing considerable effort into straightening-out a stubbornly curled index finger to point in my direction.
Earlier, I had observed him retrieve a folded newspaper, sliding it out from an aged and well-used plastic carrier bag, onto the table top in front of him. Unfolded, he’d proceeded to read, while eating a plain cheese sandwich, from which crumbs of bread dropped onto his knees. “Young man,” he said in a voice as shaky as his hand, “here, in this country, it is unlawful to smoke inside a public space.”
Having been mistaken as a visitor in a foreign land, unfamiliar with the smoking ban, I decided to playfully maintain his misimpression. Smiling, I replied in a delicately understated accent, saying “Ah. Sankyou m’sieur, I am forgetting the rules, merci-beaucoup.”
At this, the old man’s eyes sparkled. Caught in mid-action rising from the table, I felt his wobbly hand rest in the crook of my elbow, exerting a gentle – if uneven pressure, suggesting his desire for me to sit back down. “Mon ami, asseyez-vous, s’il vous plaît. Je suis désolé, je voulais pas être désagréable. J’essayais seulement de vous aider.”
His fluency took me by surprise and realising a response was needed, I drew upon the little grasp of school-boy french I had, replying “Oui, merci beaucoup, vraiment.”
“Asseyez-vous, asseyez-vous, s’il vous plaît.” he repeated, and from there, he began talking to me at length, in perfect, beautifully pronounced french. With a prickly feeling on the back my neck, I nodded periodically and interjected at various intervals with “Oui, c’est vrai”, “B
ien sûr que non!“, “Je suis totalement d’accord” and “Quand les poules auront des dents!”.
I’d understood about 20% of what he was saying and yet somehow managed to pull it off. By carefully watching the expressions on his face, I found myself making judgements regarding which phrase to use. If a look of surprise arose, I quickly said something along the lines of “Je rigole, c’est tout.”
By monitoring the cafe wall clock, I knew I’d sat through twelve continuous minutes filled with a somewhat one-sided conversation. When the old man reached a pause and sat back in his chair smiling at me, I quickly fumbled with the sleeve of my pullover to examine my wristwatch. Exclaiming some abstract french phrases about time and lateness, begging his pardon, I excused myself. Having offered gracious thanks for the chat, he bid me farewell. With aplomb, I took my leave, privately amazed at myself and relieved to have got through and out the other side of the situation, still in one piece.
This is a true story.