Several Reasons to Learn French

August 9, 2011

The very very best reason I can think of to learn to speak French is that it’s seriously, exceptionally, wonderfully gorgeous, and you really should get here someday, even if it’s just for a few weeks.  But save up your pennies because Euros cost 140 each.  And learn some French,  because being in France with reasonably decent access to French is completely different from being here without it.

Once, we lived here for a whole year.  Now, a year later, we’re just visiting.  On this visit, now that I kinda sorta speak some French, I am not so pathetically terrified of getting everything wrong. For example, I can now successfully order the right sorts and amounts of cheese from the butcher behind the counter at the Intermarché. We’re here in August, when there are plenty of tourists around speaking other languages, so most people would probably speak English with us if we wanted them to.  They usually offer, in the form of throwing out a few words like a life-raft.  But we don’t seem to need nearly as much assistance this time around.

We set off in our peppy little rental on the deadly narrow little roads, zipping along between teeny towns and teenier ones.  Cars would swoop up in my rearview mirror and be passing me within a second or two of my noticing them.  The scariest, in fact, was a speeding police car the size of a thimble whooshing along with lights flashing, and no siren.  It drove past me like I was standing still and nearly caused me to drive into a ditch.  So I guess another good reason to learn French is so that you can talk to the people who come in an ambulance to piece you back together when you have that near-fatal accident that always feels so inevitable on the dangerously picturesque roads of France.

The landscape we drove past today was classic rural French:  no billboards or housing developments, only acres of vineyards, and signs painted on plywood advertising melons, peaches, apricots, and tomatoes.  DH and I have theorized that the sketchier the sign, the better the fruit.  Every ten kilometers or so we discovered another fortified hilltown, built solidly into the rocks above the road.  You don’t need to speak French to find “le parking,”  or “les toilettes,” but if you ever find yourself in one of these places, you might want to learn French so that you can find the other delights, like the Church (L’Eglise), The Town Administrative Building (Le Mairie) and the dusty old building passing as a tourist attraction.  In Aups, where we lived for a year, most of the tourist attractions were places where French Catholics had butchered Hugenots during the wars of religion, and where the Hugenots had angrily retaliated with similar sorts of despicable actions. French people are astonishingly interested in these sorts of things, and even the lamest little towns proudly advertise their version of “Something Deeply Upsetting Happened Here.”

We stopped today in Laroque because the ice cream places were built overlooking a long stretch of river, and with happy vacationers swimming below.  We were glad then that we could read French so that we could understand the sign warning us that the parking lot overlooking the river was liable to be inundated with water during heavy rains.  Although there were in fact deadly, horrifying floods in Southern France just over a year ago, it was hard to imagine such a thing happening today, with a cloudless sky and so many happy people splashing about.  The river was a long and beautiful half-circle sweep of glistening water, with a concrete berm in the middle like a dam, over which a few inches of water still flowed.  Girls in bikinis and little boys in speedos walked along the edge, or slide down the concrete — exactly the sort of thing that would be completely banned in the United States as “too dangerous” —  mostly because it looked super fun.

Every now and then a canoe or a double kayak would float in from upstream.  The pair of boaters would maneuver the canoe so that the front half was hanging out in midair before it came crashing down and surged down the concrete for twenty feet or so.  And not on a gradual angle, either.  One sad little pair got lodged precisely 49% over the precipice, and spent a long time shoving with their paddles and lurching forward with the weight of their bodies to try to get their vessel to dump downward.  This drew everyone’s attention, including those of us in the ice cream restaurant above.  Shove, push, shove, lurch, thrust — and suddenly they gained that last 2% and splashed into the water.

We all applauded wildly.  This did not require us to speak any French, as we used the Italian, “Bravo!” to voice our deep pleasure with their success.

When you speak French, you can order rosé more easily. Like this: Ro-say. Accent on the second syllable. Extra credit if you make the R sound authentically French.

Tonight, at dinner on the terrace at Le Tour de Mole in Sauve, everybody ordered (in French) although when DH attempted to tell the waitress that her recitation of the specials had “changed his mind” about his order, he said something like “You have changed my outlook,” which caused her to wrinkle her nose confusedly and nod politely.

Nobody ever really freaks out when you make stupid foreign language mistakes; errors are part and parcel of learning something new.  Nonetheless, as DH was tormenting himself for this stupid faux-pas, we three jumped in and tortured him as well.

“Did you make a mistake just now, Daddy?” Abigail asked, almost in disbelief that DH’s usually perfect French had failed him.

“Did you just tell her that she changed your life?” I asked, thrilled for once not to be the one making the stupidest error.

“At least you didn’t tell her she changed your diaper,” said Grace.

At the table behind us, eight people of confusing European nationality were speaking a mixture of German, French, and something that sounded like Backwards.  Bill thought it might be Walloon, but I’m pretty sure that Waloons just speak weird sounding French, like Candadians.  Every now and then the people of confusing European nationality would burst out of their Backwards and say something intelligible.  We were almost certain that we heard them say, in English, the words, “Happy Meal,” “Rock and Roll” and “Dollarfish.”  OK, only I heard the last one, and it’s not a word in English, but nor was it French or Backwards either.

While we were eating on the terrace, a group of costumed actors passed by on the narrow street.  They were dressed as though they were barely surviving the Bubonic Plague.  One man had covered his face in black soot, and was pushing a cart with an entirely-real looking dead animal inside.  His comrades were wearing similarly yucky old leather, and one had his head covered with a hood, and was carrying several rubber chickens.  DH, Grace and I looked at each other and announced, in perfect unison, “Bring out yer dead!”  Speaking fluent Monty Python is almost as great as speaking French, and Grace has had an exceptional education in that oeuvre — a happy side effect of our year with the movie collection at the house we rented during our year in France.

Plague Chickenman returned a half hour later and stepped heavily up to the huge wooden door of Le Tour.  He carefully placed a paper scroll in the door handle, then swung around, lifted off his hood, and gazed at us with madly crossed eyes.  He then pulled a (rubber) egg out of the body of his rubber chicken, and bounced it on the ground for our amusement.  Our command of French did not help us to understand any of this.

We spent the next twenty minutes trying to goad Grace to go up and read the scroll.  I think we assumed it was an advertisement for a plague-related product, or perhaps had something to do with an art happening.  Since Grace can read pretty much everything in French as long as the vocabulary is basic, she knew she could probably make something of it.

Just as we had almost convinced her to get up and get the scroll, about a hundred people came spilling into our little section of street, carrying paper lanterns.  They were not wearing dying-of-plague regalia.  Among them were three or four gorgeous actors in medieval costumes, with little headsets in their ears.  They were swishing along down the street, telling all the children of the group (it was eleven PM and the group was at least half kids) to look for “a sign.” When the kids didn’t immediately find it, the actors provided broad hints that the kids should look at la grande porte.

We were all instantly glad that Grace hadn’t boosted the paper, as it might have broken the mood somewhat to have a 21st century girl guiltily hand over the scroll.  The prettiest medieval girl looked surprised when one of the kids found the rolled up paper there in the door handle, and then she read, in her most dramatic tones, about the “four historical functions” of the architectural feature we were all sitting beneath.

She had them all rapt.  And no, I do not mean this ironically.  This whole exciting event was basically a glorified architectural tour, with costumed actors to bring historical suffering to life and teach the excited audience the function of something called “The Tower of the Mole.”  Sometimes, it’s good to speak French just so you know when they are doing something really deeply weird, and not just something normal, but in another language.

Pretty girl swept the crowd and their lanterns down another street (presumably searching for the dead animal in the cart or the guy with fake Pox.)  And immediately, Grace decided what she wanted to be when she grows up.  You ready for this?  She now wants to be a medieval French history actor, with a long green dress and a fancy amplified headset.   She even worked on her patter all the way home, in really killer French, with accurate verb tenses and everything, providing a grand tour of the road between Sauve and our borrowed house, pointing out the ancient bridge, the parking lot, and the beautifully named dechetterie (garbage dump).

When all those people were telling us how lucky our kids were that they were learning a foreign language, I bet they never thought of that particular career path. I take her to France and she becomes a costumed actor pointing out post offices and recycling centers to hordes of tourists.

And here is the last reason I will offer you for learning to speak French:  because you really need to speak French to be able to dedicate yourself adequately to la Recherche du Temps Perdu:  wistful, nostalgic searching for your own memories of France.  Wistful nostalgia sounds best in French, and it’s a great language in which to long for things that happened long ago and won’t happen again.

Two years ago we moved here and our year here changed our lives. We took photos everywhere.  We stayed, we learned, we loved one another.  And now, two years later, we return, and take photos in the same places.  The places haven’t changed a bit.  But we have.

The Girls in Sauve, September 2009


The girls on the same street in Sauve today, August 2011



Josh August 10, 2011 at 1:38 pm

Lovely post Launa…we went back to Portugal in the summer one year after leaving there and it was a wonderful, bittersweet visit

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