When the Language is in Tense

You see them all the time when you're on holiday abroad, the Brits whose approach to communicating with foreigners is to speak in English very loudly and very slowly, all accompanied by not necessarily helpful hand gestures. If you're anything like me, you've probably shuddered at the Basil Fawltyness of it - and then wondered whether you'd be any better.
Taking into consideration the five years I spent studying French, my ability to speak it is shockingly weak. Five years of describing objects in a room - the dog was in the basket, the cat on the chair, the mouse under the table, as I recall - are of little help when you need to know whether the cassoulet is vegetarian-friendly or not.
Perhaps it's just me. My years of French study were somewhat scarred by a very minor detail in the textbook we were required to use. It featured a family whose pets included "un chat et un chien" - and a monkey. Yes, a monkey; every French home should have one, apparently. This particular simian, if I recall correctly, wore a hat and a scarf and rode a bicyclette. But it was also named Nikki. And, let me tell you, years of "Oui, Nikki le singe?" from the witty teacher every time I answered a question soon wore awfully thin.
I simply stopped putting up my hand.
These same textbooks had been handed down through successive generations of students since at least the 1950s. Now, you might assume, as we did, that French in 1984 was pretty much the same as French 30 years earlier. How wrong we were.

As we began our O-level studies, a new teacher came to the school. Appalled by the state of the books we were using, he was rendered nearly apoplectic when he discovered that, thanks to the directions of Cours Illustres, we were all in danger of habitually insulting every French waiter we encountered by calling him "garcon". Apparently, the appropriate word was 'monsieur'. And it had been thus for a couple of decades or so.
To get around this, the teacher created his own lessons, which, much to our amusement, generally featured the singer Michael Jackson. I can only assume it was an ill-advised attempt to "connect" with the youth. Regardless, I for one was only too pleased to leave the days of Nikki le singe behind me.
By the luck of the draw, on the day of my French O-level oral examination I was required, in French, of course, to pretend to arrange a date with the examiner.
Even at 16, I suspected this was a pointless task. Not, you understand, that I'm especially opposed to the idea of arranging dates with Frenchmen, especially if he is of the David Ginola variety, but I knew that if I ever were to go on holiday to Paris, I'd surely be far more likely to need directions to the Eiffel Tower or a nice little bistro on the Champs Elysee. And besides, I mused to myself, if Frenchmen are so romantic, wouldn't he be asking me?
Make-believe romantic assignations aside, much of our lesson time was spent learning about past participles, future progressives and past perfect tenses. All of which would surely prove very useful for those of us planning to move to France, write a novel in the French language, or seek a job at the UN. Since few of my classmates have done any of these things, I suspect that our time might have been better employed. The point, surely, is to be understood in a foreign language, not to pass off one's self as a local?
When you think about it, when was the last time you used a perfectly conjugated sentence in a food shop? You're in the chippy. You don't say: "Good evening, madam. I would like four pieces of deep-fried haddock and four portions of chipped potatoes please." You say: "Haddock n' chips four times, please."
Call me revolutionary here, but I think all most of us really need is a few basic sentences and as many nouns as possible. While it would be rewarding to pass the time of day with the locals discussing the state of the French economy or the philosophies of Descartes, when we're on holiday, our needs are basic: to eat, drink, relax, find our way, keep safe and call for help in an emergency.
For some bizarre reason, just about the only French word I can instantly recall is chaussettes, or socks, but, until I looked it up, I had no idea what they called a fire extinguisher (it's extincteur, by the way). You tell me: in a pinch, which is likely to be the most urgent?