Monday, June 20, 2011

French Leave

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.


Little Nell said...

Welcome back, and with such an interesting story too. What a find Father Yves was; it’s encounters like those that make it all worthwhile (and thank goodness for his impeccable English, or we would never have been able to share his story).

I’m a fan of Lisa Scottoline - it’s a pity she isn’t more popular in UK. I’ll be looking out for Noah Gordon now, especially as I see there is a Spanish connection. Thank you Steerforth.

Tim F said...

I was most perturbed when I went to Paris a few months ago, after an absence of many years. French people spoke to me in English, without complaint, without a shrug and without me asking them to do so. THIS IS NOT WHAT FRENCH PEOPLE ARE SUPPOSED TO DO, and I will never go there again.

Also, there was considerably less dog poo on the streets than I remember.

Kári Tulinius said...

Besides the benefit of being able to read French novels, learning French gives you access to much world literature which isn't available in English. Around three percent of literary books published each year in the Anglophone world are translated works. In France the percentage is closer to fifty.

I lived as a child in France, but sadly my French is rustier than an old nail. It's on my list to relearn French.

Martin said...

Not only do we get to share your wonderful photographs (the saint is my favourite) but we get a quality mini-travelogue. Good to have you back, Steerforth.

lucy joy said...

It's chance meetings with people like Yves which make holidays special. Those photographs really demonstrate the beauty of simplicity.
I've a feeling I'll have a nightmare featuring the trapped frog tonight, they really frighten me and I don't know why.
Have you considered doing a good old-fashioned letter exchange in order to brush up on your French? Some people find it easier learning 'visually' as opposed to listen/repeat. I follow two bloggers fluent in French, I'm sure they'd help...

Harry said...

That's a toad. They can live 40 years, although they'd be lucky to last that long in the wild.

Steerforth said...

A toad? Thanks Harry, I knew that someone out there would have an answer (and you have a great blog, by the way). I'm shock that this toad could be serving a longer stretch than many humans.

Lucewoman - My wife has suggested that I take private French lessons, which is remarkably broadminded of her;) However, I'd welcome the chance to talk to real French people. Contacting French bloggers sounds like a good idea.

Martin - thanks for your kind words. I almost didn't publish this post as it seemed like aimless, rambling nonsense (not that this has never stopped me in the past), so I'm glad you enjoyed the travelogue.

Kári - I couldn't agree more. I'm appalled by the fact that fiction in translation is perceived as some sort of niche market. I'd rather read a first rate Hungarian novel in translation than a second rate English one. I'm glad that bloggers like John Self have helped to redress the balance.

I bet your rusty French is still pretty good.

Tim - I agree. Whatever happened to the omnipresent smell of Gitanes and Gauloises, and why do Frenchmen no longer urinate in the street? However, I was reassured to see that the shops still close at every available opportunity. Vive la France!

Little Nell - I had a look at a Noah Gordon novel when I was in California and frankly, it looked a little overwritten and turgid. I can't help wondering if the German translator has improved on the original. Either way, he's obviously a good storyteller to be so popular.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for such an interesting post - not at all aimless! I, too, really like the sandstone saint. And I'll remember your encounter with Father Yves. How cool to stumble upon a contemplative order with coffee shop.

Anonymous said...

Loved your mini-tour. Thanks for sharing.

It was wonderful to hear about Father Yves. One of the most interesting and broad-minded woman I ever met was an elderly nun from Saint Mary's Convent. We used to have tea together about once a month. She was an absolute delight, now sadly deceased, though she did manage to celebrate her 84th birthday before succumbing to cancer.

I too tried to speak French while in France, though not with much success. And like you, I'd taken refresher French classes first, in hopes of being able to understand at least some of what was being said to me. Desolee -- mais je ne comprehend pas. Still it's amazing how far one can get with merci and s'il vous plais!

Another great post, Steerforth.

Canadian Chickadee

The Parrot said...

Lovely stories Steerforth. I was in Paris last month and ate a rather revolting meal of bone marrow. Apart from that, marvellous country.

Brett said...

Thanks for another enjoyable travelogue!

I often get requests for British novels that have never been released in North America, and are owned only by libraries in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand.

Sometimes we can get them through interlibrary loan in large type editions by Charnwood or Ulverscroft. In the old days, U.S. libraries had to get their large type books from British publishers.

Then there is the confusion caused by giving U.S. editions of British novels new titles. Just last week, I had an e-mail exchange with a woman who thought that Dublin: Foundation, by Edward Rutherfurd, was a new series, when it was only the UK edition of The Princes of Ireland.

I read Gordon's The Physician years ago, and enjoyed it, but I don't think you'd find it on the shelf in a bookstore here either.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

Just back from a similarly half-drenched week in Eastbourne, so I do sympathise.

Father Yves sounds wonderful. And I love the melting wax effect statue.

Re learning languages I once had a boss who decided to take a year out to go and help a fellow enthusiast run a mountain biking centre in Italy with his wife. His wife duly spent the year leading up to their 'gap year' at night classes learning Italian and doing impressively well at it, only to discover when they embarked on their sabbatical at the mountain biking centre that it was in a tiny little village near the top of a mountain where the locals spoke their own dialect, almost entirely unrelated to the mainstream Italian she had laboured long hours over! Needless to say, they came back to UK within the year, much though the language barrier was not the only problem they faced when they got there.

Lucy R. Fisher said...

"I will never again make the mistake of walking into the middle of a herd of goats with an open bag of food..." I'll remember that when in France.