About Charles Timoney
An Interview with Charles Timoney
More About Charles Timoney
When Charles Timoney and his French wife were both made redundant in the same week they decided to try living in France for a year or so. It proved much harder than expected. Charles' O level in French was little help when everyone around him consistently used a wide variety of impenetrable slang and persisted in the annoying habit of talking about things he had never heard of. But they stayed. Two decades and two thoroughly French children later, he decided to write the guide to French that would have saved him from so many blunders and misunderstandings along the way. Pardon My French: Unleash Your Inner Gaul is it.
Interview with Charles Timoney, author of Pardon My French
What motivated you to write this book?
I originally set out to describe my first few years working in France in the form of a novel. It seemed to have all the elements I thought were necessary for a good story: my eccentric, alcoholic boss; daily misunderstandings; dramas and a worryingly slow learning process on my part. However, rather than a coherent story, I found I produced a series of separate observations of all the things I had been confused or surprised by over the years, each of which was associated with a given key word. It struck me that these were the words that would have changed my life had I known them when I first came, but which could also be useful for people who just visit France on holiday.
What are you reading at the moment?
I buy books, generally on impulse, whenever we go back to England. A brief visit last weekend saw me come home with the latest books by Bill Bryson (I laughed so much on the plane that people behind me stood up to see what I was reading), Lee Child and Alexander McCall Smith.
What French authors do you enjoy?
As I spend most of my working days reading tedious legal documents in French, I find that I can’t face the idea of reading in French when I get home. I thus only read English books for relaxation. Thinking about it now, I realise that I have read alarmingly few French novels.
Where do you write?
As I write about French words, I have to note down promising new words whenever I hear them. This can be in the morning commuter train, during meetings at work or at home. I then usually write the definition in my office at lunchtime. When I get home, I re-read what I wrote that day and tidy it up. Writing in two places means that my red USB memory stick is one of my most treasured possessions.
What one thing would you have like to have known before moving to France?
I had imagined that the first year in France was going to be a bit difficult, but I had no idea how much I had underestimated the confusion, frustration, misunderstandings and general exhaustion, all of which I would endure for years. Thus, the thing I would really have liked to have known was the fact that it was all going to work out fairly well and that, twenty or more years later, I would still be happy to be here.
What would you warn all visitors to France about?
I don’t think I really need to warn them about anything – it isn’t as bad here as some people think! There are loads of things that I think visitors could usefully know – most of which are in the book. Perhaps the most useful thing to warn people about is the fact that the service charge in French restaurants and bars is included in the bill. There is thus no need to calculate a tip on top, though you can always leave something if you feel like it. There is also the very simple, but very useful fact that you can buy just half a “baguette” in a bakery, preferably twice a day, and thus enjoy fresh bread each time. Oh! And a pedestrian crossing is not necessarily the best place to cross a road in France.
What were the hardest moments at the beginning?
Going to the hairdresser for the first time was particularly stressful as I was faced with a torrent of words I had never heard before. For example, I thought “pattes” were animals’ paws and couldn’t understand why the hairdresser was offering to shorten my paws. Helpful gestures led me to understand that the word also means sideburns. Asking him to thin my hair out a bit was tricky too. To thin out hair is “désépaissir” which is an absolutely horrible word because of all the different vowels you have to deal with. When you are asking someone to do it, you have to put the verb in the subjunctive tense and the whole thing gets completely out of hand. I defy anyone to say “Je voudrais que vous les désépaississiez” properly with wet hair and a towel stuffed down your collar. My first medical test was probably even worse as it involved taking my clothes off before the misunderstandings began. The only highlight was the doctor who thought the English measure height in “shoes” rather than “feet”.
What are some essential French words for discerning tourists?
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Saying “Ouistiti” and not “cheese” – this is vitally important for having your photo taken by French people or for encouraging them to smile when taking theirs. Enthusiastically crying “ouistiti”, which means “marmoset”, produces a wonderful broad smile, even better than that produced by saying cheese! Knowing that you can buy metro tickets more cheaply in “carnets” is also useful when visiting Paris.
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