Learning how to speak French can be challenging, especially for those who move to France knowing only croissant, un, deux, trois, and merci, like me. Everyone has their own methods to improve their language skills, and mine began with driving. I started with the number plate game (before the departmental numbers got smaller on the new number plates). Then, I started reading aloud the departmental numbers on the number plates, and soon enough, ridiculously long numbers such as quatre-vingt-dix-neuf (99) were rolling off my tongue.
Once I’d perfected numbers, I moved on to hitchhikers. The lack of regular public transport around in the Alps means that people hitch between villages often. Even Candide Thovex picks up hitchhikers, so who am I to drive past someone in need of a lift? Besides, hitchhikers are a captive audience, making them excellent victims to practice dodgy French skills on. Most hitchhikers are happy to get to their destination without having to wait any longer by the side of the road, even if it means being polite and patient with the driver massacring the French language.
I’ve learnt loads of small talk from hitchhikers. I’ve chatted about the common stuff like “Vous habitez ici?” (“You live here?”) right through to cultural conversations comparing France with Australia. I hope most hitchhikers have enjoyed the exchanges, even if some cringed as soon as they heard my accent. As my French has improved, I’ve used hitchhikers less for language practice, but I still pick them up out of habit and kindness, especially in bad weather.
Last night, I picked up the grumpiest hitchhiker I’ve ever met. He needed to get to Le Grand Bornand, where I was headed, so he jumped in. I broke the silence by asking in French if he lived there. He grunted like some teenage angsty boy despite being older than that. I tried again, asking if he found it quiet between seasons. Another grunt. I added that in summer, it’s lovely and he didn’t even bother grunting. I was glad Le Grand Bornand was just a few kilometres from where I’d picked him up. I contemplated stopping the car and telling him to get out, but we were already at the village entrance. When I parked in town, I sang a purposely cheerful “voila” but he was already half out the door. I followed up with a melodic “au revoir” (“see you again”) and he grunted one more time.
I wanted to shout after him: “You rude s**t. I hope a tyre splashes mud up you next time, you ungrateful w**ker. Screw the ‘au revoir’ — unless you’re standing near some mud.” The words just weren’t there in French, which means either I need to continue learning French with hitchhikers, or I need to learn to shrug it off with a good old French “bof“.