Ever since I was a young child I’ve been fascinated by France. I was given a French name and that I think started it all.
When I was 14 the opportunity arose to go to Paris to stay with a French family and go to school in France to improve my French language skills.
Of course I grabbed the chance with both hands and was duly despatched on a Friday morning in May by coach and ferry to the City of Lights to stay with strangers.
I wasn’t remotely worried as I recall, I was just excited and keen to see all the things I’d read about from the Eiffel Tower to the Mona Lisa. I’d been studying French for three years at that point and I thought I could speak it pretty good… until I arrived in Paris. Almost immediately it became obvious that my slow, precise pronunciation was absolutely nothing like the real thing. I’ve always had an ear for languages and strangely – playing the piano, I can hear a tune and pick out the notes on the piano immediately even though I can’t read music terribly well and never had lessons. So for me, the chance to hear people talking and be able to pick up on the nuances was brilliant. To this day people in France say that I speak French like a native. Actually my French is not that great but I do know slang words and “in” words, I have a Parisian accent and know where to put emphasis which helps a great deal.
The family lived in the 15th Arrondissement, a very smart part of Paris. They consisted of Monsieur (Papa), Madame (Maman), their daughters Babette and Dominique and their son Edouard. Various family members flitted in and out of their lives on a daily basis.
Madame was a wonderful old school, stay at home Maman. She was a most fabulous cook and maker of coffee and I don’t think that even to this day decades later I’ve ever had coffee to better hers. It was served in small bowls, no handles or saucers like we had at home… sipping the hot sweet coffee out of those bowls seemed decadent and sophisticated and I said “oui” whenever it was offered.
Before starting school I had a weekend to get to know the family. Various Tantes and Oncles (Aunts and Uncles) came round to see the foreigner. Everyone that came in kissed me three times and then three times when they left. I felt very special – we certainly didn’t do that back home, a hand shake if you were lucky!
On the Saturday Babette, Dominique and I went with Tante Marie-Claire to Versailles. I was thrilled. To be reflected in the Hall of Mirrors, see the Petit Trianon and walk where the Sun King had walked was a completely enthralling experience for me. I was an avid reader of history books and particularly French history and to see the places I’d read about was a dream come true.
Babette and Dominique had an air of complete Parisian nonchalance even at that age (they were 13 and 14 respectively) and affected an air of indifference. I tried to emulate it but it was no good, “oohs” and “wows” just came out on their own accord. I must tell you though, that by the end of my stay with them I could affect a look of apathy and indifference just as well as they.
When I got home and tried it my Mother was about as unimpressed as she could possibly be and “take that look off your face” was heard more than once. It wasn’t a wasted skill I found later, any would be suitors on my school bus could be put in their place pretty quickly and I was always grateful to Babette particularly for teaching me how to perfect “the look” – it was hardly ever off of her face – she knew she was an expert!
Sunday bought an entirely different trip – involving Monsieur and a rabbit…A bientôt Janine
Part II – the case of the disappearing rabbit and an uncle who was like Noel Coward.