The Harbour Master

Marguerite wasn’t the only person who treated us well. One day I went to the small magasin alimentaire where I bought our few essentials and asked the shopkeeper where I could find a small fishing line as I wished to try my hand at fishing off the wharf. He called to his relatively sour looking wife to mind the shop and took me out the back to a small garden shed where, hanging on a wall, was an old rod. All this of course was done using mime or a fleeting delving into a phrase book. He took the rod from the wall, raised a questioning eyebrow at me and satisfied that we were both in accord, headed off to a small fishing tackle shop. He purchased some line and some tackle and set up his rod. He refused any payment.

Next morning I sat on the edge of the bay in my brown corduroy jacket with my shoulder length hair and my Gauloises Cigarettes. I spent the whole morning but to no avail. In the evening – the sun sets early in France in January – as we were preparing a meal there was a knock on the door. A stern gentleman, in some kind of uniform spoke in rather halting English and explained that he was le ‘arbor master.

“Zay tell me zat you aff been fishings.’

I wondered if I had broken some local law.

“Zay tell me Zat you aff catch no fishings.

I felt a bit of relief, because if it is against the law to sit on the Harbour wall and fish it must not be too terrible if you didn’t catch any fish.

I agreed with him on both accounts and he, taking on hand from behind his back, handed me a plastic bag with two magnificent whiting.

“Zeese are your fish.”

I huffed and puffed and blustered.

“You where Zee only person who vas fishings today. Zeese fish were caught today. Zay must be your fish.”

Much thanking and my wife asked how they were best to be cooked, and he drew his other arm from behind his back, presented a bottle of white wine and said, “Vith zis.”

And he turned around and left. It appeared that he had been sitting in his Harbour Master’s office, overlooking the solitary fisherman and noting the absence of any catch and had decided to do something about it. I learned this all later. After work that evening he had taken his small runabout out to his favourite spot and caught the two whiting especially for M et Mme Australien and le petite Australien. And a few days later we were invited to dine with himself and his wife. They were most interested in whether we would be able to meet their daughter who had married and gone to live in Perth. I had to explain that the distance from Melbourne to Perth was about 3000 kilometres. This, I explained was the same as travelling from Port-Vendre, where we were in France, to Moscow.

It was a lovely town and the whole population put paid to the standard negative attitude we had been told to expect. A lot was due to our having learned to say, “Excusez-moi madame, je ne parle pas français”.

8 thoughts on “The Harbour Master

  1. All you have to do is to learn a few phrases in the foreign language and people will respect you for the effort you have made. Mimicking the accent of people who speak English, however, may well lead to a punch in the eye.

    • I think the most extreme example was when I heard a bus load of French Canadians playing bingo in Italy. Their accent was what I would have said was American but their sentence structure was very archaic and a local Frenchman told me that it was as if I arrived in London and asked a cabby, “Couldst thou convey me unto the Palace of Buckingham.’ I would most certainly get a punch on the nose for that.

  2. I found the same, people are people. Some nice, some not. Same hopes, same fears. It’s harder in the huge cities to be civil to people en masse. You have to make an effort to connect on an individual level. Always worthwhile when you do.

  3. The stock phrase every hardened language teacher will teach first, in any language. The escape hatch. Learned Russian for a few months in school. We became proficient in the Russian version of “I do not understand Russian language”.

    • I don’t care for them one way or the other. I just like people who are honest and open with me – not because they are Greek or Turk, Viet or Lao, French or German. I one met a pretty decent Englishman.

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