When I was at school I learned French. In fact I began learning at the age of 8 in Mrs Noble’s class. Mrs Noble liked me, having despised my older brother (the loathing was mutual). Given that I generally hated my brother (also mutual and absolutely compulsory at the ages we were), I loved Mrs Noble, which might have been why she liked me. Life is like that. We tend to like those that love us. Unless they are insane stalkers. But that really is another story.
I adored the sounds of the words and I enjoyed learning. At secondary school I was, to be fair, generally mediocre at the grammar and indeed only actually began to make friends with conjugating after moving here in September last year. But I perfected my accent and frankly I was waiting for the call to star in the remake of 80s sitcom ‘Allo ‘Allo. I listened to Jane Birkin breathing her way through Je t’aime and wanted to BE her.
Adulthood and a cheese business that took me back and forth to Paris to the gastronomic chaos that is Rungis Market. Ad hoc travels to Provence, Normandy, The Auvergne in search of the perfect morceau to bear triumphantly back to Berkshire in the overstuffed boot of our car and present to our customers who would sigh in ecstasy and run home to devour their new best friend with gusto and self-congratulatory glee that they had found this ‘maaaarvlus little place’ which sold all things French-Cheese without their having to bother at all with la manche.
During all this time, I listened French. I loved the sound. Compare the way that airport is said in English – two clipped syllables uttered in a reasoned monotone – with the same word in French. L’aeroport. The aer has the lightness of a soufflé and that for me is French. That for me defines what I adore about the language. Of course regionally and even more microscopically the way words are pronounced, the way sentences are constructed, varies. Standard French, the same as BBC English is not the standard at all. My radio station of choice when out in my car and indeed in my home, now that I have discovered the joys of listening on-line to the wireless, is RBA 104.4 Bort les Orgues. The main reason for my slavish devotion is the woman I know as ‘Over Enunciating Announcer Lady’. She is bliss. When she does her petits annonces I am captivated by her emphasis. ‘PerDU, un beagLE tricoloooooR a Bort les OrgUH’ or even more deliciously the moment when behind the wheel shortly before Christmas I heard her utter ‘Soob Millie Mettre aRAY ….. a Champs sur TarentaiNUH’ and realized it was a shout out for The Husband with Two Brains’ presentation on trous noirs and his observatory in Hawaii. Her fabulous iteration gilds my days and she has unwittingly helped my French from stuttering to fluttering over the last six months.
That moment driving to Lyon in April when I realized the strange sensation I was experiencing was seeing Spring burst forth to greet me with its bumptious greens and yellows and pinks and whites and mauves in great swathes before my eyes is replicated in my sudden ability to assimilate and respond to a barrage of French with relative ease. But even in areas with harsher tones the words have elegance to me. Somehow Tortue sounds so much more evocative than Tortoise particularly if you can perfect that mysterious swallowed ‘r’ that the French absorb by osmosis in order to bewitch dull English girls like me later in life.
I have lived in Italy and speak decent Italian, I learned Russian for six years at school but for me French is candied grace and refinement. If it were a scent it would be captured in a bottle made of a glass so fragile that you would think it was a bubble. Even in Cantal where we live. THAT Cantal recently described as le trou (the hole) by a friend in Grenoble … repeat after me. – Non, il est pas le trou! It isn’t. Fact. But that is not what we are talking about here and despite being innately discursive I am determined to stay en piste for this moment. No. Say Grenoble. Gren. Oble. Now say it with a French accent (it is after all French). Can you hear the chicly swallowed G? The way the ble whispers away at the end? That’s French. I speak it comme une vache espagnole but I hear it fluently. And it is music in my ears.
PS: My title is taken from a song by the brilliant Tracy Chapman. She was Talkin’ Bout a Revolution – something else the French do rather well ….
It should be noted that this piece was originally written for a writing competition … it didn’t make the cut but I rather felt it worthy of a place here nonetheless …. you are free to agree or disagree or remain Swiss and neutral. And the photographs of mountains? For me learning the language is like walking in the mountains: sometimes the climbs seem endless and the struggle never ending, you feel you won’t ever reach the top, you feel the task impossible but when you turn the corner on the path and take stock of how far you have climbed and breath the air and survey that vista, the effort evaporates. And aside from that, I simply love them.