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THE TELEPHONE rings. I answer it, saying as I always do 'Oui? Allo?' A voice the other end says 'Monsieur. . . ?' followed by a long pause. I'm immediately suspicious.

The initial conversation goes like this:

Some woman the other end

THE TELEPHONE rings. I answer it, saying as I always do 'Oui? Allo?' A voice the other end says 'Monsieur. . . ?' followed by a long pause. I'm immediately suspicious.

The initial conversation goes like this:

Some woman the other end (SW): Monsieur . . .?
Me: Oui?
SW, slowly and painfully: Monsieur . . . Chreestophair . . .?
Me: Oui?
SW: Monsieur Chreestophair Comp . . .?
Me: Oui?
SW: Monsieur Chreestophair Comp . . .bell?
Me, beginning to enjoy this, knowing the crunch is coming with 'Howes', which is almost unpronounceable for the great majority of French people: Oui?
SW, puffing with the effort: Monsieur Chreestophair Comp . . .bell . . .oh-wess?
Me, resisting an impish urge to say 'non': Oui?

With enormous relief she goes on to introduce herself as Nadine something-or-other. Her company is doing a survey into environmental economy, whichs turns out to mean that she wants to sell roof insulation or double glazing or nuclear central heating or Katyusha rocket-proof doors and I'm sure it's not only in France that innocent people are afflicted with this desperate nuisance. If it's not roof insulation or double glazing it's some other slightly dodgy approach to selling something you can't possibly want or you'd have it already.

It's well known that if topics of conversation between French people ever flag, you can re-awaken interest immediately with talk of recipes and the best ways of preparing some dish or other. Suddenly everyone starts chattering at once, desperate to get their pet method of marinading rabbit or sautée-ing beans in before anyone else. In the same way, you can easily rekindle failing Brit social chit-chat by raising the matter of cold calling. Everyone has their favoured response, ranging from hanging up immediately to actually buying a new fitted kitchen and justifying their feeble sales resistance by boasting about the tremendous bargain they've discovered. There's nothing very startling in all this, of course, except the little matter of language, especially as I should think at least 50% of otherwise intelligent and outgoing expat Brits are reduced to quivering linguistic lumps when it comes to answering the telephone in French.

The best advice I can give is to practise saying 'Non, merci' until you've got it absolutely right. As soon as you're fairly sure that you've got a cold caller, just come out with this magic formula and hang up. They won't come back. They never do . . . unless it isn't a salesperson in the first place and you've got it wrong.

Only yesterday the phone rang and the rigmarole above started. Signally failing to take my own advice, I let the caller ramble on trying to get my name right. Once she'd established that I really was who she thought I was, the next line - absolutely crucial as sales bait - hooked me inescapably:

Monsieur, nous vous devons de l'argent. We owe you money. In fact it's long overdue.

* * *

SEVERAL MONTHS ago an unusual invitation came my way, one that authors are generally very gratified to receive and struggle like Laocoön with the sea serpent to find an excuse to turn down. A lycée - a high school or senior secondary school - an hour's drive away had been studying one of my books in English and wanted, as the culmination of their work, to meet the author and talk through some of the finer points.  I suppose it's the dream, or in some senses the nightmare, of authors to have their work adopted as set books, but I was a bit wary of this one because it concerned a book I'd written based on the Seven Deadly Sins.

Just in case you've forgotten the Seven Deadly Sins, here they are: Greed, Envy, Avarice, Anger, Sloth, Pride and . . . Lust. Now if there's a path that angels fear to tread, or ought to, it's going to discuss Lust with a crowd of horny, hormoned-up and hot-blooded French adolescents, so before accepting the invitation I made it clear to their English teacher that I didn't do Lust, not in these circumstances anyway. It didn't matter: she didn't do Lust either, and in any case what they were doing was Sloth.

There weren't too many angels stepping it out on this path either, as I'd treated Sloth not as a disposition to do as little as possible but as chronic reluctance to make the brain work, i.e. to think. Ever the martyr to a wayward imagination, I'd linked this interpretation of Sloth in the story with the death of Richard Cœur de Lion, and had presented the whole as a series of chatroom contributions or blog comment thread. As soon as I'd put the final full stop in it seemed too sophisticated for its own good.

At the lycée the kids were superb: courteous, intelligent, considerate, as well-behaved as they'd been well prepared by their teacher. The three hours I'd agreed to spend with them sped by, and some were reluctant to leave even when the bell for the end of the school day rang. It was very gratifying to go home and tell Josephine that too often French teenagers, or teenagers anywhere, get a bad press and that just now and again it's good to redress the balance.

* * *

And the woman on the phone? Somebody from the local education authority. They'd caught up with me at last. I was due €135, just under £100, for my afternoon's excursion. Wonderful. Sometimes it pays to let cold callers rabbit on.