A degree of French was nothing like enough
PARTLY because I like to think of myself as braver than I ever have to prove I am, and partly because I was distracted and not paying nearly as much attention as I should have been, I said: "Sure, why not?"
A friend had asked if I could fill in for a sick tour guide. He knew I was good at bullsh*tting – it's always nice to have your talents recognised – and really, it would be as easy as falling off a chair. "Une chaise", in fact, for I had to do it in French: "You speak French, don't you?"
Officially, yes, yes I do. I have a degree in French. That I obtained, oh, 23 years ago. I've been to France a few times in the interim, and managed fine asking directions and ordering dinner. Except the time I ordered kidneys.
I understand French films fine. But understanding and speaking are not the same, and to say the doubts were niggling is to grossly underestimate the power of these doubts. There is a fine line between idiocy and persistence, so I said I'd give it a shot.
I researched the landmarks and rifled through my stock of anecdotes: if you got seated beneath the portrait of Elizabeth I in the Exam Hall it was said to be bad luck, there's an app for the Book of Kells kinda thing. Then set about trawling some other hall of my brain for likely French vocab with which to impart these gems.
It didn't get off to the best start in the restaurant where we were to meet. I was expecting two Frenchmen for a debriefing. There were 50 and they were hungry. But these weren't my babies and there were other guides who told me to relax and wait.
But then someone else asked me to translate the specials and I drew a blank on 'coriander'. The restaurant owner came over: "What is your purpose?"
I suspected it wasn't an existential query but managed not to say, "What's it to you?", but sadly nothing came out instead so he persisted: "What are you for?" Er... was my pithy riposte. He walked off.
Some hours later, out at the airport, my group arrived. Ironically enough, the phrase that I uttered when told I had to sit on the little fold-down chair at the front of the coach and parler into the microphone was one often referred to as French, of the "pardon my..." variety.
Any and all words or phrases that had managed to cling on to my neurons deserted me. And with them went my entire mental capacity. I panicked.
Say something about the recession, suggested my mentor. I tried to think of a jaunty recession angle and recalled that Beloved had got a good reaction to a photograph he entitled 'Dublin in working crane shock'.
I poached the concept and told them that my husband had seen a working crane in Dublin the other day, which was such a novelty in these miserable times that he had taken a photo. There was uproarious laughter.
For a brief moment, there was a chink in my panic, there was light at the end of the (Port) Tunnel.
But then my mentor explained 'la grue', 'crane' in French, also happens to be slang for 'prostitute'.
So the only full sentence I managed to get out in French was to tell a coach-load of rugby supporters that my husband had seen a working prostitute and taken a photo.
My panic reconvened.