by Adrian Sturrock | August 29, 2014 12:26 am
a. On Arras
Totally forgetting that this summer is the centenary of the outbreak of WW1, we arrive in Arras with the wide-eyed excitement of explorers enthusiastic to cast their first footprints onto foreign soil. And anyway, we need a wee.
It has taken me a little while to realise that the smartly aligned white crosses that adorn the cemeteries on the outskirts of the city are connected with the 1914-18 ‘Great War’. To be fair, this wasn’t my favourite period of History at school. And neither was the dreariness of First World War poetry studied at A Level. I feel that, considering these facts, popping over to the memorials for a quick looksy would be tantamount to little more than vague voyeurism. And anyway, I quite fancy a coffee.
For those with a less than perfect grasp of geography (or Americans, as I like to call them – ONLY JOKING!) Arras is in North Eastern France, in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region, about 113 miles north of Paris. I also found out that Arras is twinned with Ipswich. (For American readers, the location of Ipswich is irrelevant … even to the British.). This twinning is presumably due to the fact that both cities had the shit bombed out of them in two world wars and had to be widely rebuilt. I feel the French did a much better job with their rebuild.
Having left Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire at ridiculous-o-clock for a night-time ferry crossing, this stop off, around 68 miles from Calais, is a welcome break. We have found ourselves a small café table on the main Square looking directly onto the Cathedral. It is still quite early and we are watching the market stallholders setting up for their weekend customers. We are both surprised and impressed by the abundance of fresh fruit and flowers already on display. The colours and smells permeate the air and make us happy.
We are also surprised by the fact that the only city residents we have seen so far, other than the stallholders themselves, are rather on the old side. But I point out that this is probably no different to things back home at this time of morning:
‘These people have probably been up since four, dusted their entire house, knitted a cardigan or two for the grandchildren and made yet another attempt at sending a photo of their dog to a friend via their mobile phones, while waiting patiently for a respectable time to be seen on the streets.’
My wife just looks at me, expressionless. ‘Racist’, she mutters, as she takes my hand.
Our thoughts move on to breakfast. Or failing that, some kind of drink. It seems unfair that my wife is pushing me to go into the café to order, being she has at least a GCSE in French and I have only my Inspector Clouseau accent as ammunition. Handing me her little pink purse to go pay with isn’t adding to my confidence.
We sit a few moments longer, wondering if waitress service is the way forward. It isn’t. With a little trepidation, I mooch into the café building, having politely declined my wife’s offer of the pink purse. The few early morning customers and the staff behind the counter are not staring at me in the style of a stranger entering a saloon bar in some old western movie. It just feels that way.
‘Bonjour’, says the stern-looking middle aged lady behind the counter. There is no discernible smile present.
‘Um … Bonjour’, I repeat.
There is silence.
I know the French for ‘I would like’ but I’m not sure I want to risk using it right now.
The lady behind the counter is still looking at me. Waiting.
‘Yeah, um, Hi’, I say, as much to fill the awkwardness as to not appear a total idiot, though I think I may have already failed that initiation.
‘Um, une café?’ I say, holding up one finger, as if this French woman would not otherwise know what the French for ‘one’ is. ‘And une tea … au lait’, I add. I’m holding up one finger again.
‘Oui’, she responds. Still no smile.
There, I’ve done it. Mission accomplished.
But then she spoils the moment by saying a lot of words at me in French. Can she not see that my grasp of her language isn’t as good as hers?
Oh no, more silence. I want to leave. We have now, albeit only for a few seconds, locked eyes across a huge abyss of cultural difference on my side and cultural indifference on hers. Finally, she shoos me back toward the door as I realise that she is neither going to hand me the drinks nor take payment at this point in our dealings together. This is half waitress service.
I go outside and walk casually back to our table.
‘Everything OK?’ asks my wife, as I sit down
‘Yep, fine, they’re bringing things over.’
All is OK. The tea does not arrive ‘au lait’ but neither of us makes a fuss. It just seems easier that way.
It is a lovely morning, warm but fresh. As we relax, drink and chat, the square is filing up with more Arras life. It is nice to feel we are part of this scene.
As I know that the universal sign language for ‘bring us the bill’ is to hold the waitress’s eye while miming with one hand the writing of something into a pretend pad held in the other, I feel I have successfully navigated this final piece of Anglo-French commerce. She brings the bill, I pay it. Voila!
I’d like to have left it there but I know it would be a mistake to leave without using their loo. Luckily, in order to add the extra ‘t’ and ‘e’ needed to turn the English word ‘toilet’ into the French word ‘toilette’ I merely employ a little more of the Inspector Clouseau accent I’d kept up my sleeve for occasions such as this. I say it, the waitress nods in the direction of the back of the shop (and winks – oddly!), I go. Simple. It would appear that I am now fully fluent in the language.
After a short stroll around the square and into the side streets aligned with shops and stalls, My wife and I decide that Arras is actually quite nice and need no longer be associated with Ipswich. I suggest we email the mayor of Arras on our return, to alleviate him of this burden.
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