Tonight I found out the expat’s biggest weakness, the Achilles heel of living in a country that does not share your mother tongue. Allow me to share with you, then, my fall from the lofty heights of my bilingual pedestal.
I had previously thought that the hardest challenge my language skills could face would be a night of stand-up comedy, reasoning that a lack of shared cultural references and clever word-play would be too much in another language and hence avoided one man shows during my first few years here. But I have since faced this fear. I’ve seen a fair few, including a Quebecois (French Canadian) – even the French have difficulty understanding their accents – and I understood well enough. I even found them funny. Of course I missed a couple of jokes, as expected, but generally left a contented expat, reassured in my status of “bilingue” (bilingual). In short, I thought I was untouchable.
Alas, no. There exists a greater mountain to climb beyond that of the Quebecois funny man. Expat hell, thy name is “Impressionist.”
Yes, I spent two hours watching one of France’s most famous impressionists, Laurent Gerra, renowned for his political impersonations (can you hear the “whoooosh” as they sail straight over my head?). And I can tell you one thing, the lighting was fabulous. In fact, I’ve never had so much time to fully appreciate the lighting techniques or the quality of acoustics as I did that night in the Olympia Theatre.
It was my own fault really. Usually I do some preparation before a trip to the theatre. If it’s a play, I find out the main storyline; for a comedian, I watch some clips on YouTube to get accustomed to their voice and style of comedy. But not this time, I’d become over-confident, I’d been to the theatre at least half a dozen times. I thought, I’ve got this licked, this expat is now French-theatre-friendly. It was in this state of complete certainty that one hour before the show began I idly tapped Gerra’s name into YouTube. Ten minutes later I realised my only shot at being “prepared” for the evening’s comedy offerings was, perhaps, to bring a book along to keep myself occupied.
The evening’s entertainment, a fun Frog’s family night out, went a little like this: Gerra bounds onto stage already in character for his first impression; everyone in the audience, including my Frog family, split their sides laughing. I remain perplexed
Frog: Do you know who it is?
Frog: Yes you do, it’s Pierre Blahblah
Me: Oh! Still no.
This conversation was repeated more or less identically at least 10 times throughout the show before the Frog admitted defeat and left me to my chair-counting (250 in the lower balcony, in case you were wondering). Occasionally I resorted to fake laughing, just to keep face, which only drew worried looks from the Frog as he asked me once more if I knew the person impersonated, and I would shake my head, still apparently laughing at the sketch that I had not understood.
I got the obvious ones, Presidents Sarkozy and Hollande for example. But I’m fairly certain my laughter for them was one of relief at having finally recognised an impression, rather than actual mirth at the talents of the impressionist.
Thankfully, Gerra includes a lot of musical numbers in his act and had a full size band on stage with him. This meant that even if I didn’t know which famous French singer was being impersonated I could at least clap along and enjoy the talents of the orchestra. And, it prevented me from gnawing off my own arm out of boredom!
Incidentally, I did recognise the Jonny Hallyday sketch, but then there are so many blown up posters in the metro of his scarily tight face and shiny jackets that as soon as someone swaggers onto stage sporting a sparkly black leather jacket, even I know who they’re mocking! Unfortunately, I haven’t actually ever listened to any of his music, so beyond the swagger this impression too was lost on me.
The crux of the problem, it occurred to me during the two hours I had free to reflect, does not lie in comprehension. I understood most of what this guy was saying, I just didn’t know who he was impersonating and so couldn’t appreciate why it was funny. He was impersonating politicians from decades ago, singers from the 40s, 50s and 60s, and famous French actors from another age. As such, I was missing about 70 years of cultural references, and a lifetime of French political and showbiz knowledge. This is not something you can rectify by reading Le Monde a bit more regularly (i.e., at least once) or watching a few more French films. I didn’t grow up here. The majority of my cultural references still come from England. This is something that can only be altered by time. Which means in 20 years’ time, if I’m still in France, I will happily and confidently stride into a theatre and laugh along with everyone else as someone takes the piss out of that well-known politician, Pierre Blahblah. Until that moment though, I leave you with my lasting memory of my first expat experience of an impressionist’s show.
The enlightening evening all boiled down to one pinnacle moment. During the show’s culminating musical megamix of famous French singers going all the way back to… Well I don’t know who, but a long time ago, Gerra belted out an old French-calypso style classic from the 50s. The audience, delighted, began to sing along to the chorus which consisted mainly of the words “salade de fruits, salade de fruits” (fruit salad). I, sadly, could not join in. Frog turned to me, mid-sing and disappointed,
“But chérie, everyone knows the Fruit Salad song!”
I shook my head sadly, a failed expat – I did not know the fruit salad song.