Some childhood dreams almost do come true, I wondered if I should learn just enough of a language to get away with it in countries where it is not spoken

Going to Paris and startling the locals with his command of their language was a childhood dream. Ah, dreams!

There was a time, briefly, when I thought I had a gift for languages. It is every schoolboy’s dream (second only to the one about becoming an astronaut) to be able to speak in a variety of tongues. French was a particular favourite, and I dreamt of going to Paris and startling the locals with my command of their language. Ah, dreams!

For when I finally did get to Paris – a long time after the school books were put away – I sounded exactly like a tourist stretching the few sentences he knew and hoping they communicated what they had in my mind.

Bonjour and its sister bonsoir were easy enough. I knew that comment allez-vous meant “do you have anything to comment about the alley near you?” and l’addition s’il vous plait was useful in restaurants when you wanted to tell the waiter, “you must count all the plates before I leave.”

But under pressure I tended to mix things up. Sitting next to a local in a train, I thought I would initiate conversation with that classical Indian opening when strangers meet on trains: “How old are you? Are you married? How many children do you have? Do you own a house? What is your annual income?”

Ever since my schooldays, I have heard these conversation-openers between people meeting for the first time. Any change from the routine was a horrible social faux-pas for which you had to apologise.

But I ran out of my stock of French after saying “Bon jour, l’addition s’il vous plait, comment allez-vous and ou sont des toilettes”? That last bit was French for “How often do you go to the toilet every day?” But no confidences were forthcoming; I thought I heard words like “jackass” and “moron” in response.

I once saw a French movie where the male lead kept saying “j’taime” to many women (not all at once), and I thought that would be a useful thing to say. It meant, I presumed, either “Don’t be fooled, actually I am quite tame”, or “let’s aim for the j and t with an apostrophe in between.”

And that’s how I broke my tooth, or as the French say, en tout et pour tout.

My French teacher in school had emphasised that all French verbs had exceptions and that even the exceptions had rules. But she said all that in French, so none of us understood.

I wondered if I should learn just enough of a language to get away with it in countries where it is not spoken.

For example, could I get away with broken Italian in Spain, or half-remembered German in Italy?

But the memory of the broken tooth is too strong.

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