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
I am so thrilled that the paperback version of Extracting Goats From Jean-Claude’s Kitchen is now available at Amazon here! To celebrate this occasion, Florence and I have made a movie! Extracting Goats – the Trailer! I do hope you enjoy it.
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.
I’d love to share with you a second extract from ‘Extracting Goats from Jean-Claude’s Kitchen’ in which I describe the sharp contrast between concert giving in small-town France and that in urban life. I hope it makes you smile and I’d appreciate a share. ‘Extracting Goats… is published by Kellan Publishing on January 27th.
During my formative years as a classical
guitarist, I soon came to understand that a formal concert in a British, urban
environment is a structured and rather predictable affair. There is a code of
conduct which attendees follow religiously: it is inappropriate to applaud
between movements of a piece, a concert will start at 7.35pm if it is billed as
7.30pm and the performer will receive an encore – regardless of whether the
audience enjoyed their evening or otherwise. How different my experiences were
in our little corner of France.
Upon arrival in theDordogne, I was a musical unknown. I needed to expand my pupil
base pretty sharpish and to present myself as a guitarist for concert work as
there were mounting bills looming on the near horizon. The music schools for
which I worked were kindly and energetic in organising events where I could
showcase my playing. One of my first concerts was in the beautiful Eglise Notre-Dame-de-la-Paix in Ribérac. Here I
was to share the programme with an organist, a pianist and also accompany a
violinist. Upon arrival a couple of hours before the event I was thrown into a
world of loosely-organised chaos, more akin to a rock gig than a classical
concert. The pianist was using an electric instrument and brought along a
degree of sound equipment better suited for Megadeath at Glastonbury rather
than Chopin at Ribérac. There was
also the preparation of the microphone for the Master of Ceremonies or, as
he/she is known, the animateur or animatrice. This was my first of, sadly,
many experiences of the phenomenon I refer to as Monsieur/Madame Micro. Attendees of concerts in small French towns appear
to believe an evening is incomplete without a local ‘character’ bellowing
benign information down a microphone at a volume akin to strapping one’s head
against the landing gear of a Boeing 747 in take-off mode. More on this in a
As the starting time of 8.30pm approached
– notably later than in the UK – I was prepared. I had changed into a snappy
suit and red shirt, completed my warm-up routine, and was poised purposefully
on a pew to the left of the stage. At 8.35pm, the pianist was still unloading
more equipment – reversing up a truck to the ancient oak door and gathering a
team of roadies to stagger in with a second batch of bucket woofers. There was
no audience. By 9.00pm, I was anxious and my normal zen-like pre-concert state had
evaporated. I felt uneasy at such a casual disregard for the starting time. At
least though, the church had gradually filled up nicely. It seemed the French audience
knew the protocols just as a British audience knows theirs – they were just
singing from a different hymn sheet. In small-town France, there is no way that a concert starts at the
billed time. It is mutually understood that at 8.30pm, an audience is tucking
into dessert which will be followed
by an espresso and the obligatory digestif.
Eventually, at 9.15pm, Monsieur Micro took to the stage to
rapturous applause. I sensed his performance was of equal, or perhaps greater
importance to that of the musicians. He proceeded to introduce the performers
at a volume which would have made Pete Townshend wince, giving lengthy
biographical details of each of us. This was completely unnecessary as he was
simply reading the same programme notes which had been handed to every audience
member in print, but it was all a necessary step in the procession of events.
Whereas I was bored and mildly vexed at this further meaningless delay to the
music-making, the audience appeared enraptured, nodding encouragingly at every
already-communicated fragment of information. I soon found myself staring
vacantly at the ancient stone domed roof above us, concerned the massive
vibrations emitting from the PA may cause structural collapse and kill us all before
a note was played. Suddenly, I became aware of a sustained round of applause. I
looked at the audience and saw all eyes were on me. I had been introduced and,
due to the mixture of 10,000 watts of power and my rudimentary knowledge of the
language, I’d rather missed my cue. I hastily stood, grinned gormlessly like a
kid with his hand caught stuck in the cookie jar, and took a bow.
The first performer was the organist. He
was around ninety-seven years of age and barely able to lift his upper body,
never mind place the necessary limbs on the organ’s keyboards and pedals. Once
he had installed himself at his instrument, with generous help from a couple of
gentlemen in the audience, I looked at the programme to see the works he was
proposing. With considerable surprise, and admittedly some apprehension, I read
that he would be offering pieces by Charles
Gounod. These virtuosic and massively musically-complex works seemed an
extraordinary choice of repertoire for an audience who looked more as if they
were up for a touch of easy listening, and a performer who would perhaps have
been more at ease in charge of a Zimmer frame.
He commenced, with the volume predictably
turned up to eleven. As he crashed his way through the rich, dissonant
harmonies – some Gounod’s, others of his own inadvertent invention – I found my
face wincing into a range of contorted expressions of which I had no idea I was
capable. I lost three years’ worth of tooth enamel due to a subconscious grinding
induced by each wrong note. At every page-turn, he would stop, raise an arm,
and agonisingly turn the sheet before continuing his war with the keyboard. The
time taken to do this necessitated a substantial pause which suggested a somewhat
elastic interpretation of Gounod’s rhythms. Some pauses occurred for no
immediately apparent reason. At one point, I wondered if Monsieur l’Orgue had met his demise at the instrument which would,
I suppose, be quite a rock ‘n’ roll way to go, but no, happily (or otherwise,
depending on your musical tastes) he jerked back into life and launched into a
new phase of his attack. At least these pauses allowed us respite to grab a
tissue and dab at the blood discharging from our eardrums. Monsieur l’Orgue’s performance was met with rapturous applause – a
standing ovation even. I have no idea who was more surprised, me or him.
From this, I learned an audience in the Dordogne love to hear works by a French composer. It is perhaps a reassertion of the might of their culture. Bearing in mind many in the audience were elderly, it’s possible they remember the war and therefore value their ‘Frenchness’. Secondly, I learned the French like to see a bit of effort – they recognised the gladiatorial element of the performance. Yes, all the notes were there but the audience wanted blood, sweat and tears – as if they were watching a monstrous bearded-bloke from Latvia pulling an articulated lorry in The World’s Strongest Man rather than marvelling at the subtleties of phrasing in Gounod’s melodic counterpoint. I think it also relates to the passion they have for a good spectacle, the artistic consequences being immaterial. Interestingly, the French also adore music of a Celtic origin. I arranged many traditional Celtic songs and melodies for solo guitar and placed these within a classical programme. They went down a storm. Some of them, such as the beautiful song The Water is Wide, have been rewritten with French lyrics. The original meaning is usually completely disregarded and new stories created. The other items, including my own offerings, passed off very well – the audience loving my attempts to tell them about the pieces (Bach, Weiss and Villa-Lobos I believe) in French. Monsieur Micro looked rather affronted as I was stepping into his territory.
I was interested to see and hear the
courteous and reverential silence which one habitually experiences during the
actual pieces was absent during this concert, and the dozens of similar events
I performed at afterwards. It was regarded as perfectly acceptable practice for
a group of ladies to noisily drag a table across the back of the church during
the slow movement of a sonata, in
preparation for the inevitable post-concert aperitif,
digestif or rather charmingly named pot
d’amitié (pot of friendship) which is a diplomatic way of saying ‘any
excuse for a glass of hooch’. To omit this element would be akin to omitting
the presence of musicians or even worse, Monsieur/Madame
Concerts were habitually of
agonisingly-long length. I would frequently share programmes with choirs in the
area and, during pre-concert planning meetings, I would drop to my knees and beg
them to discard some of the proposed items. The response would be that the
audience would enjoy such-and-such a piece or this would be a nice contrast to
that piece, but when buttock has been installed on hard pew for an hour, Monsieur/Madame Micro is in full flow and
you had that second glass of wine during the pre-concert aperitif, believe me, an unbroken hour of music is too long. I
played at a choir festival in Perigueux and the well-meaning organiser allowed
a young folk singer with a guitar to do ‘a small spot’ at the beginning of the
already-groaning-at-the-seams programme. The result was the young fellow,
charming as he was, did that maddening thing all folk guitarist/singers do
where he mumbled indistinct introductions, telling stories which went nowhere,
all the while strumming airy chords and making meaningless adjustments to his
instrument’s tuning. We heard about half-an-hour of chit-chat and seven minutes
of songs, all before the actual scheduled programme had begun.
Dan goes on to explain why pretending to be French at a boozy chateau weddings is a bad idea, how one should avoid flippantly offering to perform at a French funeral and how he is repeatedly mistaken for a celebrity at pop/rock gigs.