Monday, February 07, 2005

"‹Pahk the cah at Notruh Dahm›"

Regional accents are novel, funny, identifiable, and generally just a curiosity for native speakers of any language. I have really just begun to appreciate, however, that they're an absolute fucking nightmare for non-native speakers. I mean, I can understand French pretty well. If someone isn't speaking at a break-neck pace, I can usually get the gist of what he or she is trying to say. Oh, right, and as long as they're speaking with an accent from the region of Paris.

Yeah, well, I forgot to look at a map before I came to France, and I ended up at the complete opposite end of the country. Paris is in the north-central part of France, and Marseille is nearly in the absolute south-east corner. And there's a southern accent, albeit without cowboy hats and barbeque. This accent is far more sinister, far less down-homey. Because I can't understand one single damn word of it. My roommates, relatively educated and having traveled quite a bit, speak French I can understand. Thank God. But every street vendor, baker, bus driver, subway attendant, and guy-selling-pizza-in-the-pizza-shop might as well be speaking a completely different language. I can kind of understand the numbers, so I can sort of buy food. Although this afternoon some guy tried to usher me to a seat to eat my loaf of bread, because evidently I said "No," when I should have said "Yes, I want it to go." I don't really know.

On my first day of work, I woke up and went down to the subway station to try and make my way to the office. I knew I had to take the subway all the way to the end of the line, the Ste. Marguerite stop, and then walk up rue Ste. Marguerite until I saw a hospital. Eitan had given me some kind of subway card, but I managed to leave it in Boston or something, so I just decided to go down to the station and figure it out.

Yeah, well, that was a mistake. After about fifteen minutes of trying to figure out how to buy a one-day pass when all I had were twenty-euro bills and all the ticket-dispensing machines (they all look pretty much like ATM machines) seemed to take only coins and French cash cards, I decided to go for broke and try and get a personal card that was good for a month. I waited around in the line to talk to a guy behind a window underneath a sign that said something that I thought meant "Welcome" or maybe "Eyeball," and then nervously asked how to get a personal card. He looked at me kind of funny, said a lot of things in an accent I didn't understand at all, one of which was "photo," and then said something like "good," and pointed to another corner of the station. So I went over to this machine that said "Video-phone" on it, and hit the one button in the middle of the console. All of a sudden, the machine said, "‹Wait one moment -- someone will answer you shortly.›" So I ran away from that machine, over towards what was unmistakably a photo booth. Four euros and five minutes poorer, I went back to the "Eyeball" window with my black-and-white photos.

This time, he kept saying what I had always thought was the word for "good" while pointing at a slightly different machine on the wall in the middle of all the others. It turns out that "bon" has some alternate meaning that I still haven't divined, because I left my dictionary in the States. Evidently I had to buy a blank card, and then the guy at the "Eyeball" window with the accent I couldn't decipher would put my photo and name on it. Of course, I had to ask for change first, because all I had were large bills. "‹You don't need any,&rsaquo" he said. Yeah, that one does take bills. So I bought the blank card, went back, gave him all my personal information, and then he asked for my address.

I had no idea what my address was. The city was Marseille, and the country was France. I thought the street started with a B.

I went home to find out my address. I wasn't going to spend 11 euros for photos and empty cards, and then have to buy some sort of four-ride pass for an outrageously inflated price and have the guy behind the window laugh at me as I passed through the turnstile. So I went home, looked up my address, and got to work an hour and a half later than I planned.

Tonight I was working late at the office (because I got in to work late, and despite the fact that no one else was there all day, I have a guilty conscience), when I was surprised to hear a rattling at the door and find a short, rather gnarled looking man in something resembling a uniform peering in suspiciously at me. Panic:

Him (quickly, in Marseillaise accent): "Babble-babble-babble-raaaaAAAAH!"
Me: "‹Hi! Good evening.›"
Him (more quickly): "Bab-bab-gendarmes-blah! Security!"
With this, he tugs at the identification badge on his shirt.
Me (realizing there's no other exit, dismayed): "‹I work here! I work here!›"
Him: "‹Yes, yes. Goodnight!›"

If one of my roommates orders pizza, I swear I'm going to clock the delivery guy in the face in my quest to defend the iPod in my room from burglars.


JB said...

Great days... a good read. Here it's the opposite - out in the countryside the Icelandic is much more intelligible because it's slow and measured. After only 8 weeks here I was able to carry on a reasonably productive info exchange with the swimming pool guy in Ísafjörður. In Reykjavík, it's another story altogether - all the words run together and jam-packed with slang, to boot.

Doug said...

Here in England I'm lucky to only have the accent issue to worry about. So I'm able to have an actual conversation at least 70% of the time. Except that time when I was in the visiting stands during the Swansea-Oxford United soccer match. I have to assume the Welshmen in the stands with us were speaking English, but I've got nothing to back up that claim.

Ísafjörður - that is certainly an Icelandic name. It seems like they must name things by getting drunk and dropping small rocks on the keyboard.