I have just returned from a very wet week in Normandy, during which I was assaulted by goats and mocked by the French for my appalling grasp of their language. In both cases it was my own fault. I went into each situation with a lot of goodwill, but a lamentable absence of foresight.
On the plus side, it was a learning curve. I will never again make the mistake of walking into the middle of a herd of goats with an open bag of food, and as far as speaking French goes, I must try harder.
I had made the mistake of thinking that my recent Livemocha French course would be enough to get me through everday situations. Every time I completed an online exercise, an encouraging email would arrive within seconds saying "Great job!"
In hindsight, the positive feedback probably gave me a slightly inflated view of my abilities. When, on the first day, I confidently asked a supermarket cashier for a plastic bag, I was completely foxed by her reply:
As the week went on, I became increasingly adept at saying "Je ne comprends pas".
I clearly need to learn some more French, but at times I'm tempted to go back to the tried and trusted method of smiling, shouting and pointing.
But it wasn't all humiliation and goats; there were magical moments too. One day I went for a drive with my mother-in-law and we ended up in a beautiful forest, near the town of Saint-Sever-Calvados:
After several miles of driving through dense woodland along empty roads, we saw a sign pointed to 'L'Hermitage'. It sounded intriguing, so I turned off and followed a rough track until we reached a group of large, granite stone buildings. A sign announced that were at a convent, which was strictly privée, but visitors were welcome to visit the chapel.
I parked the car and we got out. It was completely silent, apart from sound of birdsong and the wind roaring through the branches of the trees. A perfect place for the contemplative life.
As we walked down a dark, wooded lane to the chapel, an elderly Frenchman seemed to appear from nowhere and started talking to us. By now I was used to saying "Je ne comprends pas" and expected a characteritic shrug of resignation, but instead we received a reply in perfect, slightly aristocratic English.
When we complimented the man on his English, he explained that he'd taught the subject in Caen for over 20 years:
"I still live in Caen, but every year I come here for a retreat for a few days, to enjoy the silence. Would you like me to show you around the chapel?"
The chapel was beautiful, with an austerity that reminded me of a 6th century church that I'd visited last year. It belonged to this order of nuns and although a sign asked vistors not to disturb the residents, I was a little confused to learn that they had a gift shop that sold greetings cards, books and CDs.
After the well-spoken stranger had finished giving a tour of the chapel, he invited us into the convent for a cup of tea. He confessed that as much as he loved the contemplative life, he was quite relieved when strangers turned up.
We were led to a simply-furnished room with bare stone walls and served tea and brioche, accompanied by some gorgeous jam that had been made by the nuns.
After exchanging a few pleasantries, we asked the man about his life. He was called Father Yves and belonged to a religious order called the Salesians, who are known for their work in educating underprivilged children. He had been associated with the order since he was a child.
Born in Paris, Yves' father died shortly before the War and his mother, unable to cope with raising four children on her own, sent him to an orphange in Normandy. It sounded like the beginning of a tragic story, but Father Yves was quick to dismiss any suggestions that he'd had a tough childhood:
"No, no! It was a very good orphanage. I had a much better life being there than I would have done otherwise."
We went on to talk about the persecution of the Catholic church after the Revolution and I mentioned how much French history I'd learned from reading novels. My mother-in-law agreed, saying how much she loved Zola. There was a slightly awkward silence (somehow I don't think that Father Yves was a Zola fan) before he asked if we'd read Stevenson's 'Travels With a Donkey'. When we shook our heads, he seemed shocked:
"It is a wonderful book and I have done the same journey myself three times. But without the donkey."
Later, as we walked back to the car, my mother-in-law and I agreed that it had been worth coming to Normandy just to meet Father Yves. Anything else was a bonus.
Sadly, the rest of the week was spent dodging showery squalls and our suntan lotions and beachwear never saw the light of day. However, in between downpours we did manage to go on a few excursions.
Here are a few of my favourite moments:
1. A trip to Dinan:
I wanted to visit Brittany and the town of Dinan, with its largely unspoilt medieval centre, is well worth a visit. However, I wish that the owners of the house below hadn't filled their hanging baskets with plastic flowers. Très vulgaire!
2. Encounters with lemurs:
During a brief spell of sunshine, we visited a superb zoo that had recreated a Madagascan forest environment - minus any logging companies - where lemurs could wander freely. Most of the time, they seemed to be content to laze on the grass and lick their genitals, but occasionally they liked to investigate the visitors and seemed happy to pose for photographs.
3. Sandstone saint
At a church in Granville, this sandstone figure of a saint has become so weathered that it now looks like an abstract contemporary sculpture. I'm not sure if this picture will appeal to anyone else, but I liked it.
4. A typically French solution to a rattling window shutter:
5. Frog Prison:
By sheer coincidence our next door neighbour was also in Normandy last week, staying at her parents' house, so we drove over to have lunch with her. Although we had a lovely time, it was a small house and my sons soon started to get restless, so our neighbour asked them if they'd like to see something unusual.
She led the boys out into the small backyard, turned a hose tap on and started firing a jet of water at a small drain, that was covered with a metal grill.
Suddenly, a frog appeared, holding onto the bars like a prisoner looking through a cell window:
Apparently the frog lives in the drain. How he got there and the question of whether he has a secret exit or not is unknown, but he clearly has enough to eat. Our neighbour said that he'd been there for years, but I didn't think frogs lived that long. Is he the same frog, trapped in solitary confinement for years, or one of a family of subterranean amphibians?
6. French supermarkets:
French supermarkets are wonderful. Anywhere where you can buy a decent bottle of wine for £3 and choose from a huge selection of cheeses can't be bad, but I was particularly interested in the books. For all their supposed cultural chauvinism, the French had a far wider selection of Anglophone authors in translation than I expected.
I was particularly intrigued to find a number of English-sounding names that I'd never heard of. Were these authors who'd found more success abroad than they had in their own countries, or were they American authors who'd never been published in Britain?
When I worked at Waterstone's in Richmond, I was often asked by German customers for novels by Noah Gordon. The first time I was asked for a copy of Gordon's novel 'The Physician', I confessed that I'd never heard of him. The German customer exploded: "But he is a bestselling English author in Germany! You MUST have his books!"
After a quick check on the microfiche, I explained to the woman that there were no Noah Gordon novels in print in Britain and asked if he was, by any chance, American? "Yes, he is American, but if he is a bestseller in America and Germany, why not Britain?"
It was a question I couldn't answer. For whatever reason, some American authors fail to take off in Britain and vice versa - I'm told that Lisa Scottoline is a perefctly good crime writer, but in spite of several marketing campaigns and jacket redesigns, her novels have never become popular on this side of the Atlantic. A similar attempt was made with Noah Gordon. Perhaps he's better in translation.
Browsing through the large selection of French novels (a far wider selection than any British supermarket would stock), I was frustrated to see so many intriguing-looking titles that would probably never be translated into English.
That, of course, is another reason for learning French. I may never become a fluent speaker and will continue to be baffled by a language that sounds like a non-stop succession of vowels and soft consonants, but if I could read books in French, that alone would make it worthwhile.