Monday, March 18, 2013

Pardon My French

One of my favourite places to get coffee in Hong Kong is Fuel. It's a New Zealand coffee bar with a couple of branches; one in the upper reaches of the IFC mall, and the other submerged in the basement of the Landmark mall. At both, the coffee is good. The staff are generally both friendly and attentive (although there was one time it took them 5 goes to make me an espresso, which suggests a strange combination of diligence and incompetence). Finally, they serve an artery-hardening selection of baked goods, including a chocolate coated, sugar-slathered slice of caramel that, like a Proustian madeline, makes me think of happiness in Hong Kong and rage with a database simultaneously.

My wife sent me to Fuel to caffeinate myself while she cut a swathe through the jungle of maternity wear in a shop on Pedder Street. I detoured via the Michelin-starred boulangerie on one of the upper floors then, stomach lined with high class croissant, descended to [re]Fuel.

As luck would have it, there was one last caramel slice waiting for me. I took it over to the only spare table in the cafe and began to fail to use the fork I'd been provided with to eat it. The slice is so gooey, yet so dense, yet so brittle that using cutlery rather than just gnawing lumps out of it is bound to end in failure and disappointing pieces of caramel slice spread across the tabletop.

Thus I was sat there, curled over my food like a greedy gecko with scoliosis, cramming in the caramel while all around me, respectable pinstriped types drank tiny cups of coffee with great care and attention.

Next to me were two almost identical men. One had a shaven head, the other an almost offensively luxuriant mane of Continental hair, like a Gallic version of the Patrick Bateman played by Christian Bale in American Psycho. They were animatedly discussing something in French.

Talking French isn't a breach of ettiquette. Like most languages, there is the capability to sound pleasant, just as there is the potential to sound like a yokel. That wasn't what spoiled my day.

It was the corporate buzzwords that kept mingling their way into the conversation. I don't know if it's just me but it's not nice to hear "french french french french DEEP DIVE french french french DOUBLE DOWN french french french".

If you try hard, you can get corporate banality to wash over you without a trace. Likewise, if you're not fully proficient in French it can just be a mellifluous background babble. But the combination of the two keeps wrenching your attention back, staying you from being able to concentrate on the caramel slice at hand.

This is the language of Voltaire, of Descartes, of Balzac. It wasn't designed so they could exchange horrible phrases like "leverage synergies" and "work smarter, not harder". Perhaps they were being ironic, satirising an Anglophone co-worker who was too reliant on such phrases. But they sounded too sincere.

I'm British. That means I have a fundamental distrust of sincerity, particularly when it's Johnny Foreigner. I considered giving it a bit of the old excuse-moi, avez-voice le savoir faire necessaire pour self knowledge, but I didn't want to get punched out by a pair of Parisian bankers on my first day on holiday.

Excuse my prejudices.

They may have been Belgian accountants.


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