Je m’appelle Part Deux
I couldn’t believe it. It simply refused to register… The lobby was air conditioned. And I don’t mean they had slots on the walls for ACs. They had actual air conditioners. Working ones. The lobby was clean, the lines orderly, and even the glass planes looked like they got washed regularly.
I do realize that these are not the kind of facilities that I should get overwhelmed by in an airport terminal, especially an international one, but I have to assert that my arrival at the Abidjan International Airport, Ivory Coast made me heave a sigh of relief. I wouldn’t be surprised if heaves of relief are a common import from people who drop into Abidjan after a week’s stay in Nigeria. As a matter of fact, considering that the flight I came in was chock full of people who had spent some time in Nigeria, I was surprised nobody jumped to the floor and started kissing the carpet. Personally, I was saving all my carpet smooches for when I got back home.
Well, maybe I’m being too harsh on Nigeria. Maybe it isn’t that bad, and I just happened to experience it on an off week. Maybe it really is a beautiful, hospitable land of diverse opportunities. But I’ll never know, because the only way I’m going back there would be if someone clubbed me over the head and shoved me into the cargo deck.
For now, I was content saying a silent prayer of thanks that I didn’t have to worry about rusty luggage trolleys or corrupt customs officials… but mostly, the fact that I probably didn’t have to worry about getting mugged outside the airport gate. I was visibly happy. I was so happy that even the sound of gibberish from all around me didn’t dampen my spirits; so happy that I was prepared to live life on the edge this time… maybe open my wallet in public to buy something to eat; so happy that… hmm… gibberish?? Now why would I hear gibberish at the airport?
I shook my head and started paying attention. I still heard it. It wasn’t ordinary gibberish, though. It was gibberish with a determined pattern; an eccentric rhythm. No, no. It wasn’t quite gibberish. For a mind as keen and sharp as mine, it took only a matter of minutes – 5, maybe 10 at the most – before I realized that the people around me were actually speaking French.
Of course! French! I was told about this. Ivory Coast used to be a French Colony till the early 60s, and the official language happened to be French, not gibberish. I remembered now. I was told about this before I had been shipped out to Africa, but it had slipped my mind. As I waited in line at immigration, I could hear the rapid chatter and murmurs from all around… all in French; Ads in the lobby – classy boards that were promoting items from cellphones to what appeared to be insurance… it was either insurance or teeth whiteners – all in French; Security guards cracking jokes and laughing at some anecdote… told in French. I felt obligated to start off my stay with a French sentence. Luckily, I happened to know one. Trouble was… it was the only one I knew…
I was once part of an elite group of bored MBA students who gathered up for a crash course on the French language. During the first 45 minutes of class, the teacher essentially taught the invaluable starter phrase “Je m’appelle Hamish“, which means “I am called Hamish”, which is apparently how veteran Frenchmen choose to introduce themselves… if, of course, their name happens to be Hamish. After this first session, the course had to be canceled, due to NO fault of my own, I might add. So it was that I had this one sentence arsenal in my French vocabulary.
At the immigration counter, I was in line with my passport and arrival card in hand, mechanically moving forward even as I was trying to remember what the protocol was; how the officer behind the glass cage starts the conversation. Hopefully, she’d start by asking for my name. The perfect cue for me to respond – “Je m’appelle Hamish”. Yep.“Je m’appelle Hamish”. That’s what I’d say… But then what??
Uh, oh… Did I really think this through? A little knowledge can be an awkward thing. If I start off with my tiny little arsenal, it’s very likely that she would try to conduct the rest of the interview in French… and I really can’t see that ending well. Maybe… if I quickly laughed and said that’s the only French I knew… Maybe if I distracted her with a shiny object… Or… I knew this one magic trick that could do the trick… if only I could get hold of a hanky…
I was still pondering about my approach when I suddenly found myself at the counter, handing over my passport and arrival card, still as mechanical as ever… and the lady at the counter just stamped the passport and directing me out. No conversation. I felt shortchanged. When do I get to use my “Je m’appelle Hamish”? When do I get MY say? I learned that sentence five years ago, and I still haven’t used it once! At least, not in the proper context.
Suddenly, a happy thought struck me. I was to be picked up at the airport. By someone called Felix, an authentic Ivory Coast citizen. That’s where I can use my line. And it would be informal too, so I can be more free about it. So who cares about the stuck up lady in the glass counter? I can use up my French arsenal on Felix. It would have been so much easier if I knew him by sight, though…
I walked around the airport lobby… looking at whole lot of people waiting with placards with names on it. No. None with my name on it. Funny. Felix was supposed to be waiting for me by the time I landed… I didn’t have his phone number, or the details of my stay, or even a proper understanding of where I was supposed to go to… He should have been there an hour ago, actually, considering that my flight was delayed by an hour… Uh oh.. The flight was actually an hour late. What if Felix had come on time, waited, and left? He wouldn’t do that, now would he? Would he? I started to panic… If Felix didn’t turn up, what are my options? I had no local currency, didn’t know if they accepted credit cards at the booths here… If he didn’t…
“Excuse me… Are you Hamish Joy, from India?”
“Yes! Yes. YES. Goddammit, I’m Hamish Joy.”
Not a dignified introduction, you see. I blew it. The “Je m’appelle Hamish” line is limited in its utility. It is first and foremost an introductory tool. You have to use it as an intro. And my intro was done – Goddammit, I’m Hamish Joy. Not the same suave smoothness I was hoping for. Now, if I had to use my one sentence arsenal, I would have to talk to someone else. But somehow, the allure was lost. From now on, if I feel a need to speak French, I’ll just grab a French fry… maybe some french toast. I am done. Je suis fait.