We’ve lived in France for two and a half years and my French is still pretty atrocious. That said, I can read reasonably well now, and my listening is slowly improving, though I still need sous-titres pour sourds et malentendants (subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing), which are available on most TV programmes. Although this is a very fine invention, it not only tells you what people are saying but also things like ‘a phone rings’ or ‘a shot is fired’, obviously useful for the hard of hearing, but a little tedious for those of us who are simply hard of French. The subtitles also describe any background music that is being played. This is nearly always described as ‘sinister’, ‘romantic’ or ‘intriguing’. As far I can tell, intriguing merely means that the person doing the subtitling thinks a piece of music is neither sinister nor romantic. I find this quite engrossing, but Madame S gets visibly irritated with my occasional ‘well I thought that was quite romantic’ or ‘did that really sound sinister to you?’
My main problem with French is speaking, or rather speaking out loud. In my head, lying in bed or sitting quietly on a bus or train, I can string sentences together reasonably well. I can express my opinion, ask others for theirs, even make the occasional joke. It is when I actually have to open my mouth and speak to a real person that the world falls apart. My mind goes blank and I am reduced to about half a dozen safe phrases. ‘You’re right’, ‘I agree’, ‘We will see’ and ‘I don’t know’ will not get you into trouble, but they are not going to get people queuing up to talk to you at any social event. My accent, which in my head is Maigret with a hint of Charles Aznavour, becomes pure Arthur Daley when unleashed on the general public. I find it quite difficult to keep talking when my interlocutor is visibly wincing.
To try and remedy this situation I have just signed up for three-and-a-half hours a week of online French lessons. One of the few unexpected benefits of Covid-19 is that many English universities are now offering some of their courses online rather than in the classroom. As far as I can tell, there are no similar courses available here in France.
At first I had thought I might not be allowed to enrol from France, and I confess I had thought about using an English address, that of one of my daughters for instance. But the prospect of my acting as if I was online in England for twelve weeks was not an appealing one. I kept thinking of the scene in The Great Escape where Gordon Jackson, pretending to be German, says ‘thank you’ when the Gestapo officer wishes him good luck in English. I was likewise bound to slip up in some conversation exercise by saying that I’d been shopping at Monoprix or buying a baguette at the boulangerie. Luckily, my worry was completely unfounded and I was assured that living in France was no obstacle.
Our lessons are my first experience of using Zoom, and it’s been good fun. I’d imagined that, this being a university-run course, most of the students would be younger than me, but nearly all of us are at or near retirement age. I’m not the only one new to Zoom. George, who’s from Peckham, has struggled to get the hang of it; in the two lessons so far, we can hear him clearly but we’ve only managed to see his forehead. In the first lesson, the tutor suggested that he adjusted either his seat or his camera. He agreed, but then there was a loud crash as if he had fallen off his chair. After a minute or so his forehead reappeared, asking ‘is that any better?’ The tutor, wisely in my opinion, said that it was fine.
The lessons are well planned, and I think I’m making some progress. Unfortunately, I have the attention span of a five-year-old. I am constantly being distracted by peering at the backdrops of my various fellow onscreen students.
Harry from Dudley has, on the wall behind him, a Wolverhampton Wanderers poster and a large blown-up photograph of an Alsatian with its name, Rocky, on a metal plaque. I think Harry may be single. Judith in Cornwall has a very impressive wine rack (not a euphemism, I hasten to add), and Chloe from Norwich has a large stuffed owl. Nigel from Hemel Hempstead, who’s clearly a bit of a prat, has some of the books on his bookshelves facing outwards as if he was in a branch of Waterstones. Strangely enough, none of these are Dan Browns or Agatha Christies but things like The Seven Pillars of Wisdom and Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. My own backdrop is of bookshelves, and I’ve thought of displaying copies of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and Fifty Shades of Grey just to get him thinking.
There’s been a sort of beer festival going on in Poitiers for the last fortnight. I say ‘sort of’ because it’s not been in a specific venue. Instead, various bars have given over an evening to promoting the beers of one or more of the ever-growing number of small local breweries.
On Friday Madame and I went to Le Zinc to sample the beers of La Chamois and De Mysteriis Pictavis. After some lengthy research, Madame declared La Chamois ‘Juicy’, a light citrusy IPA, her favourite, while I went for the De Mysteriis Pictavis ‘Jinx’, a wonderful spicy porter. On emerging from the bar into the fresh air, I sensed that our research had been a little too thorough. The last thing I remember clearly is suggesting to Madame that ‘Juicy and Jinx’ would be the perfect name for a TV series, loosely based on our own lives, which I would write. In it, we would travel around France solving crimes and having hilarious adventures.
I have forgiven her for her cruel response on the grounds that she is not used to drinking large quantities of beer.