Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Pardon my French

This is not a good start. We are on our first foray as a family to the UK so La Fille can learn English. We are just ten paces into Waterloo mainline – as opposed to ‘International’ - station, and all I can hear is wall-to-wall swearing.

Above the ambient noise of a Friday afternoon rush hour people are f-ing and blinding loudly down telephones, in shouted conversations and even across the heads of other passengers. A suited City type walks past opining to his mate in a foghorn voice that their friends will “be in the f****** boozer.” My toddler daughter looks at him. She looks at me. I stare straight into her lazy left eye. Today, the equally indolent right one is covered with the flowery ophthalmic patch. Tomorrow it will be the left one’s turn. She knows I want to say: “Don’t you dare”, but she also knows that since she started repeating: “Don’t you dare” back to me, I do not dare. I quietly pray what she has just heard has not entered her pretty two-year-old head. It would be just my luck for her to repeat it to her grandmother who is already horrified that La Fille laughs like a drain every time Shrek farts on the television. Hearing the f-word from that rosebud mouth would probably kill her. Instead she says: “Gateau chocolat”. She is a clever monkey who can spot a biscuit opportunity a mile off. Here, she has me over the barrel. Still, it seems a small price to pay for her to keep quiet.

French husband, who is somewhat sceptical about the ‘let’s go to England so daughter can learn English’ line is positively honking. In fact he is mock clutching his sides and doing a rather good impersonation of Marcel Marceau in hysterical mode. “Ha bloody ha,” I mumble out of daughter’s hearing. Swearing has its uses. And so it continues: the cussing and the husband gloating all the way through south London. By the time we arrive, I am exhausted with leaping up and down to put my hands over La Fille’s ears on the pretext of adjusting her glasses. I realise this is not a long-term solution.

The French use the f-word quite a lot, probably because they have heard so many English people saying it. They also do not realise that it is actually quite offensive even to those who have not turned into their mother, unlike me. In France people use ‘merde’ pretty liberally, but rarely in front of their mothers. If it slips out they will make great play of disguising this slip of la langue by exclaiming loudly “zut”, or “ooh la la la la la la” (no idea why six las). One might come across the occasional ‘putain’, France’s f-word, which actually means ‘whore’, but again rarely in front of maman and, in general, not in loud conversations into mobile phones on the Paris Metro.

Since when did the British become so foul mouthed? I can swear like a foot soldier but I tend not to very loudly in public or in front of children – mine or anyone else’s – or my mother. I used to work with a very posh girl who used to exclaim “Oh, shoot”, which seemed faintly ridiculous at the time, but was a million times better than “sugar”. Perhaps I am just noticing it more. I still recall standing behind a woman in a supermarket till queue years ago as she berated her young son for swearing. “How many f****** times have I told you, you little b******, not to f****** talk to me like that. What the f***’s the matter with you?”, she screamed with genuine surprise. It was sad and I should not have laughed. But I could not help myself. At which point she turned and swore at me.

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