The Infinitive and Beyond

Arse

Part Two – My route to French

My French was picked up in my twenties when I moved to Brussels around 1990 with a previous partner, whose first language was French, despite his impeccable English. Not one of his friends in Brussels spoke any English and I was completely isolated in company. I could not follow even simple dialogue, was terrified of the supermarket, and it felt like people were always laughing at my expense. They probably were

But necessity is a great motivator, and despite having no appropriate clothing (or understanding) I somehow landed a job serving lunches at a very smart restaurant in Place du Sablon, working for a very wealthy and attractive lady known secretly by her staff as ‘Madame Cuisses de Grenouille’ due to her wardrobe of designer miniskirts – a name which I, of course, could never pronounce

We took a room by the flea market in the Marolles of Brussels. There were no cooking or bathing facilities, so I used the public baths in the next street. The room was directly above ‘Cafe Les Puces’ on the corner of Place de Jeu de Balle. Freddy, the wonderful barman at Les Puces, made sure we knew all the regular marchants and other locals. Sadly Freddy was HIV-positive, and needed someone to cover when he went to hospital appointments, and I offered to help. Then he became too sick to work and he asked if I would take his position. It wasn’t what any of us wanted and I have no idea how anyone thought I would manage

The boss was Bernard, a scruffy little Bretton guy who I thought looked very fierce, but who turned out to be a real pussycat with no English, a wonderful sense of humour and an insane (not in a good way) Luxembourgoise wife named Vera. Despite my lack of French, Bernard and I somehow managed to communicate very well.  Hours were long and I worked at least 6 days a week (Vera worked some Sundays as I needed an occasional day off and she believed the tourist tips were good). The bar opened at 6am and Bernard would turn the jukebox up loud and bang on the ceiling with a broom to wake me up to come to work (true) as I slept directly above the bar

We would close anywhere between 6pm and 7.30pm each day, depending on how many customers we had and how long we felt like drinking. It was an incredibly busy bar, and I was working in a language I couldn’t grasp. I thrived on it, I made a decent percentage of the takings and I was getting hugely generous tips right from the first day. In addition I apparently started to dream in French (“je dois server le facteur”, etc ) even though I hadn’t thought I was learning much

The bar itself was constantly full of stallholders, friendly gendarmes, not to mention the postman of my dreams(!) who would start the day early with a coffee and petit cognac, moving on to beer as the day progressed. Locals were predominantly French-speaking, coming from all parts of the French-speaking colonies, and no-one other than visiting tourists ever spoke English, beyond ‘ello’. Of course, I never let on to English-speaking tourists that I understood them because I enjoyed eavesdropping their conversations

Being a flea market, no-one EVER used the formal ‘vous’ form of address. The bar atmosphere was rowdy, language was very colourful, and on top of learning all the necessary skills to keep bar in Belgium, I had to make an effort to focus on the words I really needed to understand: the names of beers, foods, numbers, etc. Happily most people were very patient with me and I had a lot of fun. Inevitably I learned a colloquial version of French, a language where ‘septante’ and ‘nonante’ were real numbers. I still struggle today to remain formal and correct, and some of the expressions I might use certainly would not be acceptable in middle-class French company!

There were some dreadful clangers, such as when I loudly called an awful man a pair of dungarees when he pinched my bum, and the entire room fell off their chairs laughing. He laughed too, but it didn’t end well because he carried on drinking and rough justice kicked in. ‘Nuff said

For a few months I was a fixture on the square. I was ‘l’Anglaise’, and people really looked out for me, which was no bad thing in such a neighbourhood. I fitted in and I was very happy working at Les Puces … until all Saints Day when Bernard had paid someone to paint the window of the bar. He chose the ‘Little Mermaid’ and the artist put my name under Ariel, Bernard’s under the crab, and scrawled ‘Vera’ beneath Ursula the witch. This was probably Bernard’s little joke, but she went ‘folle’ and came at me screaming with a large knife. I was lucky because a regular customer threw me out of the door to safety when he saw the blade. I stayed in Brussels for about 2 years, but that was the end of that gig

In 1999 when I was eight months pregnant I took Baz to show him where I had lived. In the hour we spent on the market Baz and I were greeted warmly by some of my old friends, hugged and even asked to go to Sunday lunch at someone’s home

So after 20 years of speaking virtually no French, I am enjoying finding out what I still remember, how little I sometimes understand, and how much more I can learn

 

Author: poshbirdy

Art deco/ art nouveau maniac enjoying a deep and meaningful relationship with alcohol

10 thoughts on “The Infinitive and Beyond”

  1. What a colourful tale! I don’t know Brussels but from the sounds of it, les puces were a lively place. Glad you survived crazy Vera! Funny you remembering dreaming in French, I think it also happened to me that French sunk into my subconscious at some point and took over for awhile. Just one question: what was it you called the drunken fellow in French?

    Liked by 1 person

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