Wednesday, July 21, 2004

lessons learnt
My car has been making some funny noises recently, like nasty grinding and scraping and clunking noises coming from the front right wheel. My technical assessment as an Engineer is that the brakes are fucked, or that the brake pads are knackered to be more precise. Now, the car is still stopping quite efficiently but that doesn't prevent me from imagining the poor brake disks being ground down and gauged out by unlubricated metal on metal contact.

Some of you may understand how this sort of thing causes me physical pain. It's an Engineer thing; a kind of empathy with machinery. You should see me when people don't change gears in their cars properly and the engine starts going knock knock knock. I'm practically bent over double with stomach cramps!

To put and end to our mutual suffering, I took the car down to the local servicing centre.

Naturally my French vocabulary is always in need of enlargement and an occasion such as this is a perfect opportunity to learn new stuff. I already knew a few little things in the obscure 'technology -> motor vehicles -> brakes' category, but unfortunately not 'brake pads'. Still, it didn't take much to have a look at all the signs and things they had on display and figure out what words I needed while I was waiting in the queue to talk to the mechanic.

So I start talking to this guy, asking in my finest French, Bonsoir.. I would very much like some new plaques please.

He looks at me and says, Ahe, ay zee.. It iz ze plaques.. Dooz you wernt ze frunt and ze back plaques?

Just the front, I said.

Ok.. Dooz you 'ave ze Franch voiture regiistrasshion documaant?

Erm, no.. It's an English car and I don't have a French registration document.

Weeell in zat case I am afraid it iz nert possiibleh.. Zer iz a lauw.

Now, at this point I should explain something about France. Bureaucracy is rife, so pointless rules exist in all sorts of strange places. In such a rule-bound culture, there is often an annoying person clinging to some fantasy rule that you know they have made up on the spot because they want to go home. When someone tells me that they cannot change the brake pads on my car because they are forbidden by law to touch English cars, I immediately switch into 'so you are an annoying bureaucrat and you want an argument' mode.

Taking up a 'do I look like a chump?' posture and with a 'don't mess with me, mate' expression I calmly asked, I'm sorry, you are telling me that there is a law against working on my car because it is not a French car?

Weeeel ahh yees.. Zat iz wat I am seyink.

By this time people had started to turn their heads in our direction, anticipating a show-down. Looking him sternly in the eye, and with a tone raised a notch or two to express the same displeasure as my body and face I jibed, Well, I dont understand.. There is a problem with my brakes and you can’t do anything about it?! That’s crazy!

Silence

It iz ze breahks you zay?

Yes the brakes!

Ahha.. I sink monsieur you meen ze plaquETTES?! Ze plaques iz ze regiistrasshion plates.. Zay are nart ze zame sing!

The moral of this embarrasing tale is quite simple.

If things suddenly get tense when you are dealing with someone from a different culture, and when one of you is speaking a foreign language, it is safer to assume that there has been a misunderstanding and then patiently work forwards on that basis.

Treating the other person as if he is deliberately being an asshole can easily end up with you having to eat your own shitty words.

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