Don’t be catty about my French

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - RUTH MELVILLE

‘‘SORRY,’’ I say, ‘‘I don’t speak French, but I breed cats.’’ The French­woman tilts her head, nar­rows her eyes.

I don’t re­ally breed cats, but I know how to say I do be­cause the phrase is on page 38 of the BBC’S The French Ex­pe­ri­ence 1, and that’s as far as we have got in lan­guage class. Why breed­ing cats should take prece­dence over some­thing prac­ti­cal, such as ask­ing for the lo­ca­tion of the clos­est toi­let, is hard to fathom.

I tell her, in French, that I am Aus­tralian. I am in more con­fi­dent ter­ri­tory with coun­tries, but by now the woman has lost in­ter­est and she’s com­plain­ing our train to Toulouse is run­ning 10 min­utes late for the five-hour jour­ney. ‘‘If you want a late train, you should come to Australia,’’ I long to tell her, but we haven’t cov­ered present con­di­tion­als. Ekin, our teacher, has told the class we are do­ing very well ‘‘for our level’’.

Through weeks of clumsy con­ju­ga­tions and aw­ful pro­nun­ci­a­tions, Ekin has never lost her com­po­sure, although she does oc­ca­sion­ally tilt her head and nar­row her eyes.

One woman cries in week three be­cause she says French just isn’t the same as English and ev­ery­thing is out of or­der in the sen­tences. She is also rather up­set that nouns are ei­ther mas­cu­line or fem­i­nine.

Mean­while, the class strug­gles to find the right ex­pres­sions for our var­i­ous do­mes­tic sit­u­a­tions; it seems un­fath­omable, for ex­am­ple, that the French don’t have a word that cor­re­sponds to de facto.

For the sin­gle ones — avec or sans boyfriend or girl­friend — celi­bataire sounds for­lorn, but be­ing mod­ern types we agree celibacy as a con­scious choice is to be re­spected and the al­ter­na­tive could be just as un­happy.

Karen is an only child so when we have to talk about our fam­i­lies, she starts cher­ryp­ick­ing for sib­lings and chil­dren, con­stantly for­get­ting how many she is sup­posed to have and what their names are.

Mean­while, David says he’s di­vorced with two chil­dren, Bil­lie and Bobby, and when Karen laughs, I tell her not to be rude; but I do think he’s packed in a lot for a 21-year-old — study­ing phys­io­ther­apy, work­ing at the hospi­tal, and look­ing af­ter lit­tle Bil­lie and Bobby. When he goes quiet on the chil­dren in about week six, I ask what has hap­pened and he says DOCS has taken them. I tell Karen that isn’t funny, ei­ther.

Thank­fully we have Yas­sir, with his real wife, two chil­dren and large ex­tended fam­ily, whom we come to know well. What a re­lief some fam­i­lies can still be neatly mapped out on the white­board. But poor Trudi: no mat­ter how hard she tries, she can’t make her mother’s name sound even a tiny bit French. Ch­eryl could only be from Australia.

Trav­el­ling through France, I strive to will my­self into the lan­guage, try­ing to in­tuit mean­ings, nu­ances, tones and ca­dences. Very oc­ca­sion­ally it is pos­si­ble to stand out­side pre­cise nar­ra­tive and ap­pre­ci­ate the sounds as a whole rather than as their dis­tinct parts, and in these tiny mo­ments the words sing.

Surely this is the pur­pose of travel — to re­lin­quish knowl­edge and ac­cept un­cer­tainty and, at least in France, to stum­ble along amid tilted heads and nar­rowed eyes.

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