A friend of mine, a local councillor, was on duty at the Mairie during the recent departmental elections.

Basically he was supervising all village votes - 37 of them - ensuring they were cast in the orderly and correct fashion demanded by the Republic.

As is the way, old boys drifted in and settled themselves down on the hard chairs for a few hours of socialising. There are not that many outings this time of the year so any excuse to exit the house is seized upon.

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One, obviously intrigued by the presence of a Scot given such authority, started to talk about his life to while away the day.

He told of the Second World War and his memories of the Germans - the infamous Das Reich - billeted around here.

J was riveted because it is rare to be told tales of war in these parts where too many families were pitted against each other.

Normally the refrain is: Nothing happened. Left alone. All went on elsewhere.

But this man spoke of resistance attacks, reprisals, houses where the enemy were billeted. He described seeing the troop carriers, the Commandant's car, machine guns ready, winding through our country lanes.

As J told me this, and knowing he's as frustrated as I am in our pitiful ignorance of that period of local history, I leaned forward eagerly for finally all to be told.

"And then?" I asked ready for the revelations.

"And then," he answered, "I couldn't understand a bloody word - well, maybe one word a sentence."

We stared at each other in perfect understanding. Merde.

Like me J can hold his own in French in many and varied situations; can sit through surprisingly passionate local meetings and grasp most of the complaints.

But there is a point at which we cannot cross - the patois; the strange, mangled southern French mix of Occitan (the old language), individual village idiosyncrasies of speech, and, pronunciation unrecognisible to those of us coached in the language of Molière.

It is used, in various degrees of incomprehensibility, by mainly the over 50s. The kids have a different patois - a Parisian slang where words are reversed or deliberately misused- but that's another story and one I'll never need to acquire.

Other, French, non locals, admit that they too are often lost in a conversation and even the local locals have to tell the old ones to 'speak properly.'

J tried asking the old boy to speak 'doucement' - slowly. He did but it made no difference to the strangled vowels.

Sadly, both of us have come to accept that there is a whole, dying generation lost to us, and with them both their history and our knowledge of it.

There are courses nearby in Occitan that would surely provide a starting base for me.

But, you know, with so many brain cells destroyed already by the vin rouge/vie francaise, I couldn't face the intellectual rigour required in the triple translation.

I have enough problems with two strands of French as it is - numbers and the alphabet. My mind goes into a white noise haze after the number 60.

What sort of a twisted language is it that there is no word for seventy, eighty and ninety?

Instead one counts in tens for 70 to 79 e.g. 72 is 60 plus 12 and when one gets to 80 and beyond you combine 4 times 20 and the ones.

Confused? Well 82 is quatre-vingt-deux; four 20s plus 2.

Ninety combines 4 times 20 and 11 onwards. For example 92 is quatre-vingt-douze. OK?

Also, when we give our phone numbers we give them in twos; double figures. Mine, I half-recall, involves an eighty something and a ninety something and I have never memorised it.

Instead I carry around with me a piece of paper with my address, phone number and area code and slap it down in front of whoever is asking for it. It's simpler.

Soon I may just pin it to my lapel so I can be sent home if found wandering the byways, burbling. At present rate of decrepitude that shouldn't be too long I fear.

The alphabet looks the same of course, only with the addition of accents. But the sounds produced are very different, and frankly, I'm beyond caring.

In the main, one can muddle through French life working around both figures and alphabet unless you need to take down a phone number or email address.

Numbers you can ask for in 'chiffres uniques,'single figures, but it's trickier with the alphabet, particularly when working and needing a quote.

It should be easier just to give my email but with a first name like mine, well, I start off with a disadvantage.

And so, what is oh so simple in one's native language, becomes a tongue twisting, sweat inducing, battle of letters.

Soon after he left office I was given Sarkozy's personal email on pain of death that I would not say from whom.

The contact repeated it four times until the phone went down. I have tried more variations than there are stars in the sky but still fail to connect with Nico.

Actually, maybe Occitan would be a breeze.