I don’t know your name, but I’ll pretend…

Foreign names are a constant source of humiliation for French and foreigners alike. So much I learnt 2 years ago during language school in Montpellier, but I’ve recently had reason to remember the lesson.

The first occasion was October last year. An Australian friend of Megan was here studying art. I met some Australian artists one day at the bar and decided to get her down to do some networking.

After scrolling through the A-B-C of my phone, I realised I had no idea of the girl’s name. Oh well. Networking fail. A day later she emailed me, and I suddenly remembered her name was Denika. If only I’d gone to ‘D’ in my phone.

On Sunday, Jay and I were walking to the Chinese supermarket to buy coconuts and basil when I ran into some Swedish people. I knew them through acquaintance and possibly Facebook too – though with 700+ Facebook friends, not everyone gets a Christmas card, if you get my drift…

They were 3, and we were 2. While custom dictates that I should introduce them by name to my friend, the problems were two-fold:
– I only knew 2 of their names
– I hadn’t briefed Jay to introduce himself
I thus opted for the very quick nonsense escape excuse, saying, “Hi –have to buy coconuts and basil – bye.”

Later, once I’d recalled the missing name, I replayed new endings to the scenario in my head.

….“This is Anna,” I said confidently to Jay, and she nodded. “This is also Anna,” I said, gesturing to the second, gaining a smile of success. And then, hesitating too long, I said “and this is ‘I don’t know’.”
The third woman smiled. Jay extended his hand and said “Jay.”
She extended hers and said, “I know.”
Jay: “But how?”
Her: “No, my name is ‘Ai-no’.”
Me: “It would be easier if you changed it to ‘Ai-don’t-no’.”

Of course, all this goes back to Montpellier, where I shared class with some people who’s names deemed them to be permanently forgotten, if their looks hadn’t already done the job.

Montpellier, January 2008
School is back, and the class is suitably diverse. Chinese architects, Syrian mums, Venezuelan 20 year-olds, and all of us students. The broad collection of foreign names has again proved a problem for French teachers not used to teaching in multicultural societies.

The teacher’s introductions started thus, with a Turkish 19-year-old girl: “What’s your name – Gulse? Strange name. We don’t have that in French. Do you have a French name? Good, yes Julia. Fine.

“‘Fei?’ Chinese? How do I pronounce that? No, not possible. That name cannot be pronounced in French. I’m going to call you Phillipe. It rather sounds the same, n’est-ce pas?”

Then to the next person, a 25-year-old Architect from Cheng-du, China, called Qi. “How do I pronounce that? ‘Qui’? Sounds like the French word for ‘who’. That’s about right. Yep, no, this name is not possible either.”
So she gets the class involved. “Allo. Can anyone think of a name we can call her?”
“How about Clementine?” I suggested.
“Yes, that’s a very sweet name. I like Clementine. Ok, from now on you will be called Clementine.”
I didn’t then know that Clementine means ‘mandarin’ in French.

We met our second teacher the next day. She made everyone create a name tag to sit on their desks. But confusion reigned supreme. Half the class was not sure whether to now use their new adopted names or their traditional ones – as per the class roll. “You have adopted names? Oh, that is so sweet! But I don’t have any trouble pronouncing your original names,” says the teacher. “C’est comme vous voulez.”

The newly-baptised found themselves divided into two camps – those who quite like their new names, such as Xiao Jia/Maggie, and those that clearly detest them, such as Satea/Sandrine.

“Clementine? Oh that’s a sweet name. Do you know what clementine means?” asked the teacher, reaching in to her handbag and pulling out a mandarin.


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