Je cherche les sacs en papier

A paper bagI used this simple phrase the other day when I was in a giant stationery shop: “Je cherche les sacs en papier“. Okay, I should have said “des” not “les” but this basically means: “I’m looking for paper bags”. I wasn’t looking for anything fancy, such as this designer number pictured. No, I’d just like to have some brown paper bags to hold some seeds for the garden over winter and to see if putting my geraniums in paper bags from autumn will indeed keep them alive until next spring. So, after waiting patiently for at least five minutes while the only person serving anyone finished serving the previous customer, then faffed around looking for some important pen, then finally found it and bonjoured me. I asked the paper bag question and got a blank stare. Actually, I tell a lie: her face contorted as she raised one side of her lip and frowned while she jerked her neck back in shock. She didn’t open her mouth so I repeated my request to the contorted face, which remained contorted.

You may have guessed by now that this is another rant. I’m sorry. As often as I find a fantastic French person who is patient, friendly and generous with his or her time while I converse in my accent-ridden French, I find at least one who, like this woman, makes bad facial expressions, or huffs or rolls eyes or just walks away as soon a I start speaking. I know my French isn’t too bad because some French people, such as the mechanic (see previous post) who fixed my car told me when I picked it up that my French is great, and I was able to chat for five minutes or so with him about my car, mutual friends and how his sister lives in Australia. Sydney, in fact. She loves it. He dreams of going there one day and seeing the Great Barrier Reef.

Back to the shop. My French friend standing next to me understood me, so he repeated my request to which she immediately replied — looking at him only, of course, rather than that stupid etranger who was disdainfully taking up space with her presence.

If there’s one thing that wears me down and crushes my spirit, it’s that look on someone’s face when they hear my accent and shut off completely. However, an English friend has come up with an explanation. She reckons that English speakers are used to all sorts of accents because so many people revert to English to communicate with people who don’t speak their language. Of course, it’s a generalisation, but maybe all these contorted faces are happening because the French speakers are only tuned into French accents. This would certainly explain the subtitles on TV if someone from Haiti (a country where French is spoken) is speaking French. I mean it’s the same language!

Anyway, the woman explained to my French friend that they have plastic bags and material bags but no paper bags, so it looks like I’ll have to use the large roll of paper that I bought from the very same shop months ago to create my own paper bags.


I'm a technical author, journalist and writer from Australia who has been living in Europe since 2000 and exploring the world from there. My passions are writing, snow sports and travel.

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4 comments on “Je cherche les sacs en papier
  1. Penny says:

    We call it “the frown” here. And yes, I think I get it mainly from people who’ve had little exposure to other accents, especially younger french people who haven’t travelled. I also get it from a few close acquaintances and I know its because they are concentrating hard on what I’m saying…but yeah, people like the woman you describe really annoy me!

  2. ksam says:

    That used to drive me absolutely crazy in Bretagne – the fact that I could be speaking perfectly fluent French but that people would act like I was speaking Swahili.

    In fact, it still drives me crazy. LOL

  3. Lilly says:

    Next time go to the supermarket to the vegetables corner, they often have paper bags for the mushroom… and it’s free!
    Is it english what I’ve writen?

  4. Jeanette says:

    well, having lived for 7 yrs in the same coin des alpes and recently part-time moved to Pays de Gex, I have to say that my own experiences of dealing with the aravis locals did not always run smooth, despite my apparently very good french. The phrase ‘taken for a ride (idiot) or two’ springs to mind. Turn up at Gex and hey presto, suddenly the service, smile and willingness is found (generally) in abundance… Ok, show me the colour of your money and I am your servant also springs to mind but welcome back to client is king service. Quite interesting the difference between the two areas…saying that they are both based around the money brought in by their wealthy visitors/residents. They are geographically side by side but soo far removed from each other. My conclusion and who would I rely on to help out in with a problem? Not yet decided but I’m going to revel in the great client service for the moment of the Pays de Gex for the time being and get my share of disdainful, dismissal when I return to my chalet in the Aravis most weekends. Will keep you updated!

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About me

Wendy Hollands writer in Annecy, France

I'm an experienced technical writer based in the French Alps. I enjoy learning French language nuances, winter sports and travel. Drop by, my other site.

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