A Convoy to Dalat 4

It seemed unlikely that this Vietnamese lady could be the object of my search, and indeed, after I had pronounced the name very slowly and, as I thought, distinctly, half a dozen times, the light dawned. Of course, it was not she, Madame Sle-le, I wanted at all. It was Madame Sne-de. The important and celebrated Madame Sne-de. ‘Oui, bien-sur. Moi connaisse! Moi connaisse!’
Having received the most graphic description of the route to be taken, we set off again. It seemed that neither the street Madame Schneider lived in, nor her villa itself, possessed a name. But following the instructions it would be impossible to go wrong. Unfortunately the outer suburbs were hilly and our pony, not much larger than a good-sized St Bernard dog, was tired. On slight gradients we got out and walked. Uphill we had to help with the pulling. In the gathering twilight we found an avenue that seemed to fit the description, although all the avenues and villas were practically identical, with unmade dust roads, crazy paths and over¬hanging eaves, designed to give protection from the snow that could never fall. I worked my way along the avenue going from villa to villa, but no knock was ever answered. Sometimes I caught sight of Vietnamese servants lurking at the house’s rear, but the moment they realised I had seen them, they slipped quietly away and disappeared. Eventually I found a French woman, the first I had seen in this outwardly French town. Feaning out of an upstairs window she pointed in the dim direction of the villa where she thought Madame Schneider lived. So once again, I left the trap, cut across a garden coated with pine needles and managed to steal up on an elderly Vietnamese domestic, who seemed to be a cook, as I caught him in the act of scouring out some pots. Placing myself between him and the back door, so as to cut off any attempt to escape, I began an interrogation.
It is necessary at this point to refer to the existence of pidgin-French and to explain its nature, since this was the occasion when I realised the urgency of mastering its essentials. Pidgin-French, or petit-negre as it is called, lacks the gay fantasy of its English equivalent, but is, by compens¬ation, far less complex. Its vocabulary is limited to perhaps a hundred words. Verbs are used in the infinitive except where this is difficult to pronounce, when a special pidgin form is devised; thus connaitre becomes connaisse. There are adaptations in the way of pronunciation too. The Vietnamese will not bother with difficult foreign consonants. They cannot pronounce r, and f in the Vietnamese language contains a strong element of p in its pronunciation. Thus, for example, biere de France becomes bí’ de Pla’ or bí’ de Pa’; or, to take a sentence ‘je veux du fromage Roquefort’ is translated, ‘Moi content po’-mo’ Lo’-po’.’ It was only as my conversation with the cook progressed that I began to realise the existence of these difficulties.
N.L. Madame Schneider, est ce qu’elle habite ici? COOK Moi pas connaisse.
N.L. (with exaggerated distinctness and quite useless emphasis on final r) Schnaydair-r-e, Madame Schnaydair-r-e. COOK (smiling faintly with recognition) Se-de? N.L. (after great imaginative effort) Oui. COOK Oui.
N.L. Est ce qu’elle est a la maison? COOK Moi pas connaisse. (I do not understand.) N.L. (beginning to learn lesson) Madame Se-de ici? COOK Madame partir.
N.L. (refusing to surrender to the finality of the tone) Madame va venir? COOK Oui. N.L. Quand?
COOK (employing the indefinite future offered in appeasement to for¬eigners the world over, meaning, in ten minutes, tomorrow, next week) Maintenant.
N.L. (unappeased) Mais ou est-elle allee?
COOK Moi pas connaisse. (This time, either I do not understand, or I do not know.)
N.L. (doubtful now whether this is the right lady) Madame, elle est mariee?
N.L. Elle a un mari, done?
N.L. Alors, elle est veuve?
COOK (in a desperate effort to make the whole thing crystal clear) Monsieur pas mari, Monsieur medicin. Madame venir, Madame partir. Monsieur venir attend Madame venir. Monsieur, Madame manger.
With a few more hours’ practice I should have readily understood from the lucid account of the Schneider family activities that Madame had already been home and had popped out again, probably for a cocktail with a neighbour, that her husband, who was a doctor, would shortly be arriving and that they would have dinner together at home. As it was the conversation dragged on fatuously. I gathered in quick succession that Madame was in the administration, that she was a doctor, that she was both, that she was on holiday, had returned to France, was shopping in town, and no longer lived there.
My driver, whose attempts to be helpful had only added to the insane confusion, now tired suddenly of the whole business, demanded in pellucid French sixty piastres, the equivalent of one pound, and rattled off, a small Asiatic charioteer, into the gloom. Finally the cook, too, retreated inside, leaving me standing there alone, a prey to mosquitoes and to noisy blundering insects like monstrous May-bugs which struck me repeatedly in the face. It was then that a lorry drove up and deposited Madame Schneider and her husband. They were much surprised to find me awaiting them and told me that they had sent a telegram to Saigon to say that a room had been reserved for me at the Baliverne Hotel and fixing an appointment for me at the Mairie next day. Although quite unprepared for my visit they insisted that I should stay to dinner. Asked how long I expected to stay in Dalat, I replied that I wanted to leave as soon as possible. Madame wanted to know when I wished her to try to arrange an audience with the Emperor Bao Dai, whose villa was just down the road. It seemed that I had passed it without paying it any particular attention. To this are come the Emperors of Annam!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *