End of the School Year!


If you were thinking that it’s been a long time since my last post, you’d be right! The school year since March took on a kind of frenetic energy, and, for that matter looks to continue for  few more days yet!

Today, the primary school kids that usually hurtle out of the school gates were in an excitable state but keen to linger for their last moments of junior school. I became camera woman taking the inevitable last moment snapshots. It’s moments like this that remind you that you are inescapably in France. The school, a typically “Madeline style” old brick and silex house, with large front courtyard playground and tall metal gates was overflowing with children this afternoon all saying their fond farewells to their “maitresses”. For primary school teachers to kiss their pupils is common, and today the children queued in long lines to wait to have their hands shaked and their cheeks kissed before making their way out onto the street, mindful that next year they would be in Collège. Anywhere else such displays of affection between staff and pupils would be abuse litigation possibilities!

Collègians and Lycéens finished school two weeks ago, after a flurry of exams. Unlike the UK, results for state exams are published only a month after being taken. The adolescents can relax into their holidays without anxiety hanging around them for the summer. Tonight I watch my older two prepare for the huge open air concert on the Rouen Quayside. The campbeds are already laid out for visiting friends making use of our city centre location! Following the success of last year when Mika played to a 60,000 strong audience, The city of Rouen has hosted another set of free concerts, tonight Martin Garrix takes over from the support bands at 11.30. It will be a late and noisy night!

The city will be buzzing through till July the 14th with masses of tourists joining the local population to watch the fireworks at the end of the French national holiday commonly known as Bastile Day. From that moment onwards, the local population winds down in preparation for the real French national holiday- the month of August!

Another school year is over. The school reports are in, and I’m a proud parent. Two of my children have averages of 19/20 in French. I have to record the fact because I am often asked if it is possible, and it’s a great moment when you realise that it is.  I stuck my neck out this year and registered at university to study French, mindful of the ever growing gap between my children’s expertise and my faltering one. To date, it’s the best thing that i’ve done in France. I am over the moon to say that I passed the B2 diploma. At some moments there were doubts, without question there were frustrations and it certainly wasn’t a breeze, but speaking and writing  the language with confidence creates opportunities, and opens up friendships and job possibilities. I am poised for the next diploma, the DALF C1, and all the amusement that it will hold for my children as I study along-side them next year!

But until that moment I can say only one thing:

Bienvenue à l’été!



Petits Morceaux!

When I was still in England the phrase “Ooh la la” was synonymous with France, along with frog’s legs, strings of onions and berets. It was one of those phrases that I imagined all English speaking people assumed the French uttered every day, along with the great Gallic shrug, but which in reality no longer existed in today’s every day speech. So in today’s “petit morceaux” I decided to put you straight!

Not only do the French utter, alarmingly often “ooh la la”,but now shockingly, so too do I! It has become part of my everyday language! “Ooh la la”, works from expressing slight astonishment to downright outrage. If one is lost for words, there are various expletives of course, such as “merde alors” , but nothing quite tops “oh la la” for linguistic acceptability in any situation whilst registering quite clearly the gravity of the situation.

A friend’s central heating’s broken down – a simple conversational “oh la la” will be perfectly adequate whilst expressing sufficient sympathy, but being the recipient of an ‘arnaque’ or ‘rip-off’ or cheated out of something important, the number of “la’s” will increase exponentially.

As I entered my appartment this evening my salesman neighbour was standing by the side of his car next to a pile of huge boxes, stacked harpazardly on the pavement, talking loudly into his mobile phone, and suddenly he uttered…

“Oh la la la la la la la”

Seven “la’s” – I tell you – I am agog!

If only it wasn’t rude to stand about listening!

A tout à l’heure!

The Art of Pronunciation – La Compétence de Prononciation.

Version français

A year or so ago I applied for a job with a delivery company reasoning that with the quality of my comprehension and mastery of the french language there wasn’t much else I could reasonably expect anyone to employ me for.

In fact I would go as far to say that I was absolutely thrilled that I had actually made into the working world in a country that didn’t speak my mother tongue!

Some months into this job, which involved delivering various magazines and brochures that the Mairie in their infinite wisdom had decided to publish, it was necessary to borrow my husband’s car, my own having a flat battery. Since my husband’s car was a brand new company car I was understandably a little concerned about the loading capacity compared to my trusty tank. I made a detour into the office to chat with the very jovial boss to determine if the company car was up to the job.

The boss raised his eyebrows as I entered the room, as from experience he knew that general conversation with me would inevitably result in some outlandish declaration, such as “my husband played golf with some crocodiles this weekend” – which happens to be true, but equally could be some drastic mispronunciaton of a key word in the conversation. Imagine his delight therefore when, on inquiring which car I was driving, I pointed out of the window and declared that my husbands car was a lemon! I had failed to place the correct emphasis on the ‘O’ and the ‘E’ of Citroen, and the resultant word that I had spoken of course was ‘Citron’. I knew within a nanosecond that I had committed a gross error and my boss proceeded to fall about in tears of laughter.

It was only fitting therefore that when I came, some months later to hand in my resignation, a decision made after serious contemplation and thought from the driving seat of my car five minutes before I started work, that I should depart in the style to which they had all become accustomed. Having sourced a piece of paper from the glove compartment I carefully worded the following letter in order to terminate my contract.

Monsieur, Je veux terminer mon bulot au fin du mois. Cordialement.. etc

I carefully folded the letter, put it in an envelope, and proceeded to the office to hand it over. I was frankly immensely proud of this little letter, which I had written without the aid of a dictionary and especially for the fact that my linguistic skill was now getting so well developed that I actually knew two words for “job”, the first of course being travail. I was therefore somewhat unprepared for the enormous snort and explosion of laughter that followed, nor for the fact that he left his office for that of his colleagues  – more howls ensued and returned with a drawing-pin to fix it to the wall for perpetuity.

I had of course written that I intended to ” finish my snail (or more literally whelk) by the end of the month”.

The simple fact that one can know exactly how words are written, yet fail to pronounce them properly and arrive at a completely different meaning, or one can hear repeatedly a word, and having never seen it written, spell it entirely wrongly is cause for great consternation to the average person undergoing the ‘total immersion’ experience. A “job” of course is spelt “boulot”, a whelk “bulot”.  The letter of resignation remains to this day on the office wall.

I have made quite an effort over time to increase my vocabulary, and the most interesting and enjoyable method has been by reading voraciously always in french. However this has its pitfalls. I tend to read a series of books by the same author at a time since writers tend to have their own specialized vocabulary. The first book read by any one particular author will invariably be the most difficult but each consecutive book becomes consistently easier since the very act of repetition of words embeds them firmly in the long-term memory. The problem associated with this method is that whilst one knows exactly how the word is spelled, and exactly how to place it within the sentence structure, and the context within which it is used, even the most long suffering frenchman can look blankly in your direction when, you, never physically having heard the word spoken pronounce it badly.

What makes the french language infinitely more complex is the addition of gender to the meaning of words. The website ‘French About’ has a tricky little quiz which amply demonstrates how by the misuse of gender one can entirely alter the meaning of a word. For example ‘le boum’ means ‘a bang’ or ‘an explosion’, whilst ‘la boum’ means ‘a party’, ‘le cave’ means ‘an idiot’ and ‘la cave’  ‘a cellar’. Although the following words are spelt entirely differently, the pronunciation is the same, and the gender is crucial, le pet (pronounced pay) means a ‘fart’, and ‘la paix’ (also pronounced pay) means ‘peace and to further complicate matters ‘la paie’ (also pronounced pay and also feminine) means pay. It is therefore as entirely inadvisable to walk into the bosses office to demand your salary using the masculine article, as it is unlikely to gain a result by writing a letter to demand ‘la paix’.

It has taken me two years in France (and the rest of my life in England) to learn to accurately spell the words for pudding, and for the infinite stretch of sand, so named ‘dessert’ and ‘desert’. I now can differentiate the two knowing that the pudding variety will widen the waistline, whilst being stuck in a desert without dessert will invariably shrink it. Pudding is therefore wider with two s’s, the sand narrower with only one. But I have only been able to reach this little piece of knowledge thanks to my immersion into the french language. Having succumbed (quite easily as it happens) to patisserie classes, I was slightly consternated to note that my french friends were looking at me a little bemused as I proceeded to describe the little pudding that I had made one afternoon. It was only after a few minutes of agony that my delightful friend Carole pulled me aside and announced that ‘dessert’ was pronounced ‘deZ-Sair’ with a very distinct accentuation of the Z and S sounds and not ‘dezair’ as one pronounces the sand variety. How those nuances of sound play such a major role in the definition of words and the comprehension of conversations. I am only glad that  the French, equally, have to get their tongues round the english pronunciations of  ‘dezurt’ and ‘dezut’ .  Two nationalities with  identical words and identical meanings. Dessert, desert; Two words, two meanings – four sounds.

Ahh, the joy of pronunciation!

In Which Rouen Comes To A Standstill – And A Toddler Teaches Me A Thing Or Two

In  the middle of the Toussaint holidays the collision of a refrigeration lorry with an  articulated petrol lorry which had lost control on it’s approach, ‘took out’ the principal bridge in Rouen. The explosion and subsequent fire took half a day to be extenguished by 80 firemen. The bridge in question, Pont Matilde, is the main motorway link from Calais and Dieppe to the South of France and everywhere in between, if one wants to avoid Paris.

Incendie Pont mathilde

Subsequently, the only route south is through the centre of the city and the traffic is at a standstill. At rush hour it is impossible. The bridge will be closed until next summer since the heat of the blaze weakened the integrity of the steel.

This is a disaster for thousands of locals, not least my immediate neighbour and her three year old daughter. My neighbour had just returned to work and, like me when I was working, relied heavily on ‘split second’ timing and fluid circulation to get to school pick-up on time. Now it’s just not possible.

So it is that I find myself part-time carer to ‘Petit Lapin’.

‘Petit Lapin’ (little rabbit) is probably the most chic 3 year old I have laid eyes upon. She arrives at my door at 7.30 impeccably dressed in her ‘Mary Jane’ shoes and matching tights, her little jacket and a beret on her ‘bobbed’ hair. In her satchel is her ‘after school gouter’ (snack) and in her hand her yellow rabbit.

I last had a three year old under my wing six years ago, and she looks at me a little oddly sometimes when she struggles to understand the reason for something and I struggle to find the words to explain. But ‘Petit Lapin’ is teaching me a thing or two.

“monte ton chariot” I say to her the first morning. She eyes me sideways –

..”poussette” she replies and climbs into her buggy.

“mon capot, mon capot” she calls from her poussette, and I fumble in her satchel and pull out her beret, rejected from earlier. She looks at me as if I’m a little crazy.

“Non, non, non”, she laughs and points to the hood of the buggy – “le capot”

“aah”, I say and pull up the hood.

“Mon Lapin, mon lapin” she cries in anguish, and sure enough rabbit isn’t in her hand. I’m familiar with this situation. We will get nowhere without tears. First we check her apartment, and then mine. Rabbit is nowhere to be seen. My daughter has the same rabbit in green from her baby days. I pull it out of the box.

“ca va aller?” I ask giving her green rabbit (is this ok)

“c’est pas jaune” she replies (it’s not yellow)

We text her mum. Rabbit is in her satchel! Now ‘Petit Lapin’ has two rabbits; one green, one yellow. Green and yellow rabbit have a very loud chat all the way to the metro. Once the metro starts moving, ‘Petit lapin’ looks at the lady standing nearby.

“Nous avons perdu mon lapin” she says loudly, “Nous avons cherché partout. Mais maman a su, elle sait toujours”  (We lost my rabbit, and we looked everywhere. But maman knew, she always knows) she wrinkled her eyebrows in a telling frown at me before laughing –

..”Mais maintenant j’en ai deux” (but now I have two)

And so our day continues.

But thanks to ‘Petit Lapin’ when I drop her off at Nursery, I discover a secret walkway alongside a small burbling stream on Rue ‘Petites Eaux de Robec’, which runs 7 kilometres from the centre of the city to Darnetal and passes the old linen mills of Rouen. I discover that the newly restored youth hostel was once the fine residence built by the milling and cloth dying entrepreneur,  Jean-Baptiste Auvray between 1784 and 1787.

Leaving the city centre following the stream I found myself surrounded by trees on a car-less lane and I could have walked for miles, or cycled, and I will do next time.

Later another evening, having gathered her from school, my neighbour calls to say that she is stuck in traffic, and will I take ‘Petit Lapin’ to her doctor’s appointment, and so I pitch my wits against foreign medical vocabulary and ‘Petit Lapin’ twirls a borrowed minature globe in the palm of her hand.

“C’est quoi” she asks (what is it)

“C’est la monde” I reply ‘(its the world)

“Non” she says “C’est la terre” (it’s the earth)

I don’t argue, since for someone so small ‘Petit Lapin’ knows more words than me. With her words and my understanding we can decipher the French world together. I looked it up later, and neither of us is right, It’s ‘le globe’. I’ll tell her next time and we’ll both learn something new!

I wonder what she will teach me next week?

Keep Talking!

Today I was sitting on the metro, when I noticed a profoundly disabled woman sitting on a seat not far away. She was mumbling to herself a little and talking herself through what she had done and what she was about to do. People near her were looking distinctly uncomfortable and no-one seemed to choose to sit in the seat next to hers.

I couldn’t help being full of admiration for her. Despite the fact that society as a rule feels awkward in the face of externalised behaviour, I spent that journey thinking that how amazing she was. The total mastery of a language in the face of adversity. Despite the fact that I have all my limbs, and no obvious mental issues, I face daily the frustration and the feeling of inadequacy which comes of an inability to master the French language. No matter how many French books I read, nor how often I chat to people during the day, somehow my brain just will not store and sort the information I give it. Yet this woman, despite all her disabilities had succeeded, probably without even being aware of it, with something that I find so difficult. Does she even realise how hard the french language is?

Yesterday I sent an email to a French mother to let her know that I had all I needed to get on with some craft for the school ‘Marché de Noel’. At the end I added a quick note apologising for the fact I had probably needed to use the subjunctive tense and that my grammar was ropey.

Her reply was as follows:

“merci pour ton mot.
Pour la grammaire ,c’était:”j’ai tout ce qu’il me faut’ ou ‘j’ai tout ce dont j’ai besoin’ ou encore ‘j’ai tout trouvé”

Not only had I got it wrong, but there were at least three correct ways of saying it!

We take language for granted. When do we ever stop to realise what a huge achievement it is to communicate fluently. To take on a disability mid-life is a humbling experience. Mastering the art of communication is an incredible ability.

So “Keep talking” I thought of the woman ” You are so skilled …

and I could learn a thing or two!”