Once a friend of mine from France exclaimed, “but you cannot travel in a Francophone country with just omlet du fromage!”
She was rightly horrified by a story I had just told her. It involved my first lunch alone in Morocco, and goes something like this…
After weeks of working with an Amazigh family in the desert, I suddenly found myself in one of Morocco’s bustling ports. Alone, I sat down in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant. A young man with a bad haircut appeared, and asked for my order (in French). Out in the desert, people generally spoke regional variations of the Amazigh language, so this was the first time I was forced to confront my lack of French (or Arabic, for that matter). I looked blankly back at the waiter. Nothing was coming to mind except random Amazigh words I had picked up.
Then, a lightbulb. “omlet du fromage…” I carefully worded. “Oi m’sieur!” The waiter gave me a sympathetic grin, then disappeared into the grimy depths of the restaurant. I sat, toying with a plastic flower, trying to make out the shapes of animals from mysterious stains on the tablecloth. Outside, a street-side market was slowly creeping out from the pavement, eating up chunks of the road. The flow of rusty cars clashed with weather beaten, faded umbrellas.
After a few minutes, the waiter returned, bearing a perfect, plate sized cheese omelette. Needless to say, I felt like a pretty smart cookie. Until, of course, I retold the story to mon ami a few weeks later.
“Your French is terrible!” To ram home the point, she would ask me to pronounce difficult French words, then laugh hysterically when I blubbered some incomprehensible dribble. “You sound just like a little child!” she would say. Of course it was all good hearted, but she had a good point. My French has improved slightly, but is still rudimentary at best.
However, at the time I didn’t want to concede this point. I stuck by my statement that, “I can survive anywhere in the French speaking word with just my omlet du fromage!” Of course, she didn’t believe me.
A few days later, I arrived in Rabat in the early hours of the morning. I hadn’t eaten for hours, but nothing was open. All through the city, everything was dead. Even McDonalds was closed. By the time I reached the medina, I had consigned myself to going to bed without food. I was staying with a kind family, and I wasn’t about to wake them up by rummaging around in the kitchen for a late night snack. But, as I passed through the old city walls, I saw a light.
Up ahead, two men were leaning against a wall, smoking. They had a roadside grill set up. As I approached, they eyed me suspiciously. I asked what was cooking.
The men, both wearing long trench coats, looked at each other. Under the oily glow of the lantern, they looked just a little sinister. One muttered something in French, then other nodded. He then took one last, deep drag. Then the cigarette was flicked on the pavement, and stomped on for good measure. He leaned over the grill, and nodded at an assortment of ingredients to his left.
“Omlet du fromage,” he said in a Mafioso tone. Then, the man crossed his arms and leaned back against the wall.
So, I guess it’s quite possible to survive in a Francophone country with just three words. Even if together they make a grammatically incorrect statement.