I am of an age to have been obliged to study Latin at school. I was quite open-minded about this proposition – neither I nor my colleagues were of the view that we shouldn’t study a ‘dead’ language. We were of a time where pupils unquestioningly acted upon the wishes of a teacher.
I was dreadful at Latin. Although this could well have been due to the limitations of my overall intelligence, the situation was exacerbated by the fact that one of our teachers took joy in humiliating weaker pupils, inviting the class to mock students (that was me) and the other was downright violent. I felt no resentment or fear of these characters – I just switched off completely in the class, took the hit (literally) and learned nothing, although I have a vague recollection of a volcano wiping out the main characters, including a dog.
Conversely, I was quite good at French. I had two lovely
teachers, one of whom I remain in contact with now, and the other who moved on
and I have been unable to locate. In 2010, we relocated to a sleepy village in
rural South-West France and I was obliged to delve back into the distant
reserves of my memory and rekindle my school French. I found that being
immersed in a language – and having to use it as no other option was available –
was a very effective way of becoming a fluent French speaker. I use the word ‘speaker’
as my written French is still rather poor, but that is unimportant. If I’m in
the bar with my French pals, no-one is likely to ask me to write the verb ‘vouloir’
in the third person conditional tense. It is much more valuable to learn the
expression for ‘Wales won the match – you owe me a beer.’
As time progressed I fell deeply in love with the French language. I learnt how to say ‘I’m going to throw up’ when a child demonstrated exactly how to say this before offering a practical demonstration of the phrase in his guitar lesson. The same child also taught me the unlikely phrase for ‘there is a dead bat under the fridge’. I adore the odd old-fashioned words which are departing from English but are still commonplace in French (cache, umbrage, grave, terminate and the like) and the daft new words for modern items (aspirateur – vacuum cleaner, ordinateur – computer).
The strangest, but possibly the most-valuable tip I’d offer
the French language learner is that when speaking a language, the job of
communication must take over the whole body, possibly to the extent where the
speaker’s personality changes. When speaking English, I can be rather quiet – I
tend to mumble and meander. When in conversation in French, I become far more
European. I hurl my bodyweight forwards with open palms when arguing a point, I
shrug, I say ‘Mais non!’ and wave exasperated arms around; quite frankly, I
become a Frenchman. This sounds silly and has, quite rightly, left me exposed
to mockery and ridicule from my social group, but surely effective
communication is more than just words from the mouth. How often do we look at
people’s eyes to see what they are really thinking? Can the body language of
cultures be a whole new discipline in itself? Should we teach pupils gestures
such as ‘the upwards flap of the right hand, with flexible wrist to express
disagreement’? Language is a complex, cultural and expressive tool. To speak it,
we must say it, feel it, express it, shape it and communicate it with our whole
With exactly one week to go before Extracting Goats from Jean-Claude’s Kitchen is published, I’d love to share a further extract with you. In this passage, I warn against the dangerous combination of high spirits, hot weather and an abundance of wine when attending a French Chateau wedding, and why it is a poor decision to pretend to be French at such an event…
‘Extracting Goats from Jean-Claude’s Kitchen’, from Chapter 16 – ‘I am the Music Man, I Come From Far Away…’
The biggest enemy of the château wedding is the lethal combination of high spirits, champagne and hot weather. I must avoid being a moral judge here because I love a wedding and, if I am fortunate enough to be invited as a guest, I’m partial to a glass or two of the bubbly stuff. I will never, ever though, be discourteous to a member of staff or fellow guest. If I make a fool of anyone, it will be myself when I fall off a chair or the like.
Some venues rather invite trouble as they identify the ‘Summer French Wedding in the Sunshine’ market as a potentially-lucrative one which can easily be tapped into. Generally speaking, these events require a serious financial outlay, but there are venues who run more of a budget package – supplying gite accommodation or placing ‘glamping’ facilities amongst the trees in the grounds. They will also strike deals with local wine producers ensuring no-one will go thirsty. Whereas the classier châteaux will advertise rooms which have been slept in by 17th-century French aristocracy and a feast produced by Michelin-starred chefs, others will promise enough Prosecco to sink a ship, and an abundance of barbequed foodstuffs at an affordable price.
Venues which are simply holiday complexes rather than châteaux also get in on the act. The results are stressful and painful for the venue and forgettable for the participants, not because they endure a mediocre weekend but because they suffer memory loss due to the effects of drinking industrial quantities of budget rosé.
As I pull up at a venue to play for a wedding, I can, within minutes, discern what kind of experience the afternoon promises, and react accordingly. Having arrived at one particular engagement, for example, I was ambling across the lawns of a historic château close to Bertric Burée when my eye caught the sight of around fifteen lads wearing only England football shorts, kicking a ball around, using 300-year-old oak trees as goal-posts. They had lagers-in-hands and the air was blue with alcohol-induced expletives.
Bearing in mind this was a couple of hours
before the ceremony, I politely said my ‘Hellos’ and found a corner well out of
the way to set up. One has to be careful with a choice of repertoire at such
events as, if I play anything remotely ‘pop’, it risks generating raucous
applause and the dreaded ‘requests’. I’m up for doing a few familiar tunes on
the classical guitar as much as the next guy, but when I’m asked to play Jay-Z,
well, I know my limits. Problems can arise when the invisible barrier between
client and guitarist is broken; this can lead to a scene, despite my efforts to
be courteous and light-hearted. I’ve experienced lager-fuelled Brits becoming
aggressive because I am unable to perform the latest offering from Little Mix spontaneously for their
little girl. Funnily-enough, being a hairy middle-aged white bloke, I tend to
learn other material in my spare time.
The footie-wedding described above was particularly farcical and seemed to simmer with aggression all afternoon. Luckily for me, I was due to zip away at 6.00pm as it felt as if the event was going to ‘kick off’ in more ways than one. As mentioned, I communicate at length with my couples before their big day. This particular couple had chosen Pachelbel’s Canon in D for the processional (although the email read Canon’s Pachelbel in D) – a pleasant if not trailblazing choice – and, two hours prior to their ceremony, were yet to select a piece for the recessional. In the end, I promised a stressed groom I would bash out ‘something good’ for them, leaving him to quaff Stella Artois number seven before making his vows.
The ceremony itself passed off well enough.
The congregation talked throughout, seemingly unaware that the weekend’s Strictly results were of lesser
importance than a couple vowing to give their lives to one another. During the aperitifs, I found a little corner and settled
into playing my repertoire to some pleasant folks sitting on recliners in the
shade of the building.
The father-of-the-bride was walking in
peculiar zig-zag shapes having knocked back enough bubbly to flatten a herd of
elephants. He had learned some French for his weekend away in the Dordogne,
which was admirable, and was keen to try it on anyone unfortunate enough to be
cornered. I was halfway through a bit of Tarrega
when he stumbled over, sat next to me and, resembling Officer Crabtree from
Allo Allo, attempted a bit of the
“Très bien merci,” I replied unthinkingly,
concentrating on my job.
“Comment tu-t’appellez vous your name
innit?” he ventured further.
“Dan,” was my ground-breaking reply.
“Je suis English. Anglais-like,” offered
s**t Sherlock.’ I
thought. “D’accord, c’est trés interessant,” I said.
Of course, I was digging myself a very big
hole and one which I was going to struggle to climb out of. The good gentleman,
beaming all over his face at the marriage of his daughter and perhaps due to
the lavish imbibing of cheap bubbly, believed
that I was French. To make matters worse I appeared to understand him. Call me stupid (you wouldn’t be the
first) but I didn’t have the heart to reveal my Welsh origins, because I felt
it would burst his bubble (and his body contained enough champagne bubbles to
make quite a pop, I tell you). He seemed so proud of his efforts.
Thus commenced a surreal series of
encounters during which he would periodically approach me to try out new
phrases, in between mingling amongst guests proudly proclaiming he could
communicate with the locals. By divine intervention, he failed to approach
anyone who had chatted with me in English beforehand. He sported a little English/French phrase book and, having
‘mastered’ a new phrase, would meander over to try it out on me.
“J’aime le football. Man United. Man City
sont les Nancy-Boys,” he offered profoundly.
“Ha ha! C’est trés drole Monsieur,” I
said, this being the necessary response.
“He understood me!” he announced to
one-and-all with worrying vigour.
I cringed, praying no-one within earshot
would reveal my Anglophone identity.
During one particularly arduous exchange,
he was trying to tell me how beautiful the Lake District was. He felt a good
way to illustrate this would be to introduce mime into the linguistic equation.
To illustrate ‘lake’ he repeatedly drew a circular shape in the air with his
hands, about six inches from my face. To the uninitiated, this could have been
anything from an egg to the solar system.
“Moi – je aime le Lake District,” he said
for the eighteenth time.
“D’accord,” I replied, simultaneously
fighting with Bach’s Prelude in G major.
Mr Dad-of-Bride then called out to no-one
“I don’t think he understands me. Hey,
Geoff! How do you say ‘lake’ in Froggie Lingo?”
thought. ‘Please go away before I’m busted’.
He then used the uniquely British
– je aime le Lake District!!!” he yelled as if attempting to communicate
verbally with someone in the actual
At this point, I made the suspiciously
quantum leap from ‘understanding nothing’ to ‘all becoming as clear as day’,
apparently via the means of volume and circular hand gestures.
Ze Lake Deestreect, eet ees very… err… beau n’est-ce-pas?” I offered,
unconsciously putting on a French accent.
Dad-of-Bride looked more astonished than
anyone at this success and, had he been sober, probably would have had his
suspicions aroused, but I seemed to dodge the bullet.