Sat in the cafe, after finishing a modest, lunchtime breakfast of scrambled egg on fried bread, I rolled a cigarette, as is customary, to smoke on my way back to work. As I finished the task, an elderly white-haired man seated at the table next to mine leant forward, extending a shaking hand and 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 I must reply, 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 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”, “Bien 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 like “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. Offering 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.