You speak French like a Marseillaise, the airport check-in clerk told me in French. Ah, yes, I replied, also in French, people have told me that, it’s a good thing, right? She smiled, I shrugged in a practised Gallic way. ‘Bof’.
I’m a bit of a Francophile, I love the country and its people, they have attitude, masses of it, you know where you stand with attitude like that. I love the language, you can’t speak it without passion and gesticulations, it’s so descriptive – who else would call the common-or-garden dandelion a pissenlit (wee-in-the-bed)? My grandma always said even sniffing dandelions would make you wee the bed, maybe she was French.
My love of French comes from my A-level teacher, he was simply the best. I learned the language in the days before computers and Google Translate, reciting all the irregular verbs after learning them by rote, je suis, tu es, il est…..Grammar was a necessary evil, but mon dieu, I recognise a preceding direct object and know what to do with it.
Mr Wainwright was simply essence of France, he loved it, lived it, breathed it, and there was certainly something of the Gallic about him. In those golden olden days, there were no budget airlines, or airbnb, it wouldn’t have made much difference, we didn’t have enough money to go anywhere further than the foot of our stairs. But Mr Wainwright brought France to us, he decorated the entire classroom to look like a French street, with a boulangerie, patissier and quincaillerie. He had a box of things, French things, wrappers, packets, magazines, we could rootle through, hold them, read them, smell them, it was all very exotic, I felt I was in another country, I wanted to go there.
After A-levels, I didn’t have anything to do with French for more than 20 years, stuff just got in the way. Then Noel took me to Chamonix where we stayed in a pension, a bed and breakfast where they drink coffee from a bowl. The couple didn’t speak any English so we had to search our memories for our schoolgirl and schoolboy French. Mine came back, just like that, complete with preceding direct objects. Noel was amazed, so was I, I could speak French, I loved France all over again, it was all thanks to Mr Wainwright.
I vowed that if I ever saw my beloved Mr Wainwright again, I would tell him, I was genuinely delighted. By some fluke I did see him in Leeds, just the same, except with white hair. I was amazed that he recognised me – Noel wasn’t, he muttered something like ‘once seen, never forgotten.’ I thanked him, he was chuffed, I promised I would carry on learning French – and I did. We go to classes each week, and France as much as we can, on a recent visit to Paris I was even asked which part of France I came from – west, I told them, far west of here.
My home page is the local Haute Savoie newspaper, I can tell you all about the lives and loves of the Savoyards. And I speak it whenever I can, with my Marseilles accent. I really must go there to see if it’s true!