I've written before about the difficulties of communicating in a foreign language – French, in the case of Mali and Senegal – but on the way to Ouagadougou, the capital of the Francophone Burkina Faso, I realised exactly how confusing things can get when you combine a language in which you're not fluent, a culture in which you're not versed, and a fundamental aspect of life at which you, basically, suck.
It started on the bus from Ouahigouya (pronounced 'Waee-goo-yah') to Ouagadougou (pronounced 'Waga-doo-goo'), which I had to take after the bus from Mopti terminated unexpectedly (well, unexpectedly for me, anyway; I bet everyone else knew it was going to do that). Things were going well, and we sped along the highway at an unusually constant speed, for once not having to slow down to avoid potholes as, amazingly, there were none; I passed the time by looking out for kilometre markers for Ouagadougou, which signalled our progress in five kilometre chunks. I was happy in my own little world, staring out of the darkness into Burkina Faso, wondering where I was going to end up that night, and looking forward to drawing some nice long lines on the map.
A couple of hours into the journey we stopped at a small town, and the little girl who'd been nervously sitting next to me got off with her mum. A bunch of people jumped on instead, but I didn't really notice the young woman who sat next to me; I was too busy counting kilometre markers and dreaming of having a nice warm shower and a clean set of clothes, but soon enough she leaned over to me and asked me in French whether I was heading to Ouagadougou.
So we made cocktail-party conversation for a few minutes, and I explained how I'm travelling for a year, that I'm heading through to Ghana, that I've been to Senegal, Mali and the Gambia, and that my French is pretty basic because I'm English... and so on. I've explained my story so many times in French that I've got it down to a fine art, but the problem with my French is in the comprehension; if I don't know a word when I'm speaking then I can normally explain my way around it, but if I don't understand a word that someone else says, I have to ask them either to repeat it so I can look it up, or to explain what they mean. The upshot is that to the untrained ear it sounds as if I'm having a really animated conversation with my neighbour on the bus, but in reality we're spending over half the time with me either not understanding what's going on and simply nodding, desperately hoping for a sentence I can understand and latch onto, or with me trying to understand the explanation of a particular word or phrase that's key to the discussion. It's better than going round not making an effort, but it's a long way from a real conversation.
Still, Tani, my companion on the bus, seemed happy and genuinely interested in what I was saying, and although I only understood a tiny portion of what she was saying, the conversation made the journey pass quicker than counting the kilometre markers. It also turned out that Tani was staying in a hotel in the centre of town, like me, and as the bus depot was a fair old trek from the town centre, we decided to share a taxi into town for the princely sum of CFA900. The taxi dropped us off, I paid for it to save having to fumble around with finding CFA450 each in change and because Tani had kindly run the negotiation process with the taxi driver, and we went our separate ways, but not after Tani had said she'd pop round at 3pm the next day to say hello. I sleepily nodded my assent; I was more interested in hitting the sack than planning tomorrow.
The thing is, I'm hopeless at spotting when romance is in the air, and I'm incredibly shy when it comes to the mating game, and this means I rarely spot when someone is fluttering their eyelashes at me in that special way... until too late. I have no idea if Tani was just being friendly, was interested in simply chatting to a visitor to her country, or had more subtle plans of her own, but something didn't feel right. As soon as I dumped my bag, washed off the journey and lay down to sleep, I started worrying about the next day. The thought of spending an afternoon with a pretty local girl, speaking French and suffering through a combination of language difficulties and cultural differences, scared the hell out of me, and I didn't know what to do. Perhaps she wouldn't turn up? Perhaps it would be fine? Perhaps we'd just grab a cup of coffee, make polite conversation and leave it at that? Maybe she'd bring a friend to soften the blow? Who knows, but the shy part of me didn't relish finding out. I've always loathed the dating game; to have to go through it in French was too much to bear, even if it turned out to be just my paranoia.
Three o'clock came and went, and by four o'clock I was sagging with relief; it looked like I'd been stood up, so I just sat out in the courtyard of the Fondation Charles Dufour, the lovely little hostel I'd chosen, and chatted to the others staying there. It looked as if I was going to get out of my obligations without losing face, but then Tani walked in, and I clammed up.
Luckily it turned out that Tani knew one of the guys who worked at the fondation, so they chatted away in French while I sat there, a polite smile fixed on my face as conversation flew around me without dropping any hints as to its content. I said my pleasantries and basically did my best, but my French wasn't good enough to know whether Tani was dropping hints or not. She kept saying she'd just been to the local salon du thé and that it was very nice, which could have been polite conversation, or it could have been a hint that we could go there for a cuppa and a natter. I had no idea what to do, so avoiding the issue completely I just sat there, grinned my nervous and slightly stupid grin, and probably looked for all the world like a nervous rabbit caught in the headlights of an oncoming truck. It's how I felt, anyway.
After a while Tani asked me what I was doing that night, and I used the excuse I'd prepared in cahoots with two English girls who were sharing the dormitory, and in whom I'd confided my concerns (because, interestingly, they had a guy supposedly visiting them the next day as well, and they felt the same way as I did). One of the girls, Lara, was ill with a throat infection, and the other, Clare, spoke no French, so I told Tani I'd offered to take Clare out to a restaurant so she wouldn't struggle with the language on her first night in Burkina. This seemed to do the trick without causing too much offence, though Tani looked disappointed; she soon said she had to go back to her hotel to take a shower, and we said our goodbyes with a shake of the hand and an enchanté or two, and a tentative 'À demain?' from Tani. I replied with an inshallah and let her go, feeling utterly guilty and wholly confused. Was I being rude? I have no idea, but I felt like I'd just chucked someone. What a palaver.
I also realised that if this had been an English-speaking country, there would have been absolutely no problem. I'd have gone out for a cup of tea with her without thinking about it, because I'd have known the score... and if things had got a little weird, I'd have been able to explain all about my girlfriend (who often graduates into a fiancée or even a wife when I'm travelling, as it's simpler that way) and I wouldn't have felt so bad. As it was, it felt like I was playing Russian roulette in Russian, and I don't even like vodka.
The next day Tani popped round again, but this time I shamefully hid in the dormitory while one of the girls said I wasn't in. All I could think of was getting my Ghanaian visa and heading to a country where daily communication would be in English. Evidently my Francophone days are numbered; French might be the language of love, but I've never been terribly fluent in either of them...