Don’t be catty about my French
‘‘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.