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Yes, they really do say "Ooh la la".
Slogging behind my Cambridge workstation felt a million miles away as I was lifting my umpteenth breezeblock of the day in the oppressive summer heat of La Dordogne. I wasn’t entirely sure how I had found myself in a little hamlet in the Perigord Vert department of France building a house for people that I didn’t know but I was truly content.
I had embarked on this trip in order to awaken my love for the French language that had lain dormant for the past four years. I had no idea, when I planned my adventure through the tired legal spectacles of exam term, that what I would actually experience was complete immersion into the French culture: living, eating, shopping, relaxing, entertaining as the French do. I had no idea that I would meet the most diverse group of people that I have ever met. I had no idea that I would embark on adventures with new found friends that I will treasure forever.
I was happy. Never before having tried my hand at building I was proud that I had not only given it a go but I was actually building a house. A real-life house! I was part of a project that meant so much to someone else and would stand for many years to come…hopefully. Our taskforce was comprised of about ten, of varying ages and nationalities, but all with a common passion for France and, as it would appear from the music selection each day, motown and the Beatles. We were working long days, finishing the day hungry and tired, but with stories, conversation and local wine to soothe us.
I spent four weeks working on that project, by the end I had acquired a sculpted physique, coarse lime- stained hands, some new friends and a clear mind. When the time came I was incredibly sad to leave my precious home; even if I had slept in a dormitory with eight other girls and shared a bathroom, if it could merit that description, with twelve others throughout my stay.
It wasn’t long before I received my next French make-over. My “sculpted physique” and coarse hands had been softened by the tender kneading (and tasting) of home-made bread, the delicate sculpting of pâte feuilleté around a bed of gently caramelised onions, and the solace of sticking a little finger into a pot of still warm and sticky jam. I had been transported to a chambre d’hôtes on the edge of the Cevennes national park. Chambre d’hotes tends to be translated to bed and breakfast, but this doesn’t really do the experience justice. In my experience, when one hears the words bed and breakfast one tends to imagine basic establishments dressed with wallpaper that has seen more decades than I have lived through, those frilly white curtains that could double up as doilies, and a portly woman serving cups of tea with those little cartons of UHT milk- that no-one really likes- along with a full-English breakfast still dripping with last night’s chip fat. Perhaps that is a little harsh, nevertheless the chambre d’hotes that I encountered was comprised of none of those things. It was encased by fifty-five hectares of land marked by the passage of history. It was a commune clad with traditional French stone work and brightly painted red shutters. Each cosy room was furnished with a unique selection of antiques and was named after a type of chestnut found in the region, a homely touch.
Dining was communal, everybody congregated in what must have been the old animal shelter, a narrow but long room with exposed stone walls, a curved ceiling and a porthole at the far end looking out on to the family of eight sheep grazing outside. There was one long table, three courses plus wine, aperitifs and canapés for the awaiting guests. The atmosphere was nothing but jovial, an onlooker would be excused for thinking that the guests had all met previously. It was here that I really was thrown into the culture of southern France. The guests were just as interested in learning about me as I was them. I had no choice but to practice my French with the wanderers that had discovered this gem in the Cevennes, it was at least easier after a glass of wine. It was here that I found my French utopia.
One of my responsibilities in the chambre d’hotes was to help in the kitchen. My instruction was no more detailed than this. I expected perhaps to be washing up, serving guests, making teas and coffees and perhaps preparing veg.
Along with my passion for language learning I love cooking and I was very excited to be working in a French kitchen but cooking for the French was going to be a test. I knew that I had received the seal of approval when Malika, the cook, plonked me in front of a food mixer with a “recette” and asked me to make the rhubarb clafoutis for the guests that night. I barely knew what a clafoutis was at this point, let alone how to make one. Needless to say I was nervous about cooking one for a bunch of hungry paying French guests! Well, hiding my anxiety, I seized the task and made it and it was delicious, my crowning moment! From there on I was trusted to make fondant au chocolate, prepare the salads, aperitifs and canapés.
It was a pleasure to be there and I had entered a culinary paradise where everything was coated with a generous dose of cream, butter, pastry, cheese, chocolate; all things dangerously indulgent but this was real homely French cuisine and I was privileged to experience it. It was on days where I was being kicked and screamed at by a four year old child because he didn’t want to get dressed for school that I wished that somebody could stick me in a tardis and teleport me back to that place. The smells of chestnuts melting in a pot of pork and veal stew; the clanking of the wine glasses as they were raised to the spirit of “santé”; the hearty laugh of the effervescent cook resonating around the copper pans and utensils that were suspended from the beams in the kitchen: I missed it all.
The name of this four year old- Alessandro. I was his au-pair for the last four weeks of my trip and it was my task to speak to him in English. His mother was very keen for him to learn English and practice with a native speaker, an admirable aspiration. I got him up and ready for school each morning and walked him the fifteen minute distance to the gates. This was a real task, everything was difficult, “put your coat on please”, “don’t swing your umbrella around in public”, “don’t open that gate”. It really was an exhausting journey even though only fifteen minutes long. What I would have given to be sinking my chops into a lovely gooey wedge of my chocolate fondant cake! But on I fought and four difficult weeks went by. It was a strange placement, I was surrounded by French, the family spoke French to each other, the television was in French, we were in a French neighbourhood, everybody at school was French, but I was forbidden from talking French. The family were keen that Alessandro only ever hear me speak English, they feared that if I let any French phrases flee from my mouth that he would realise that speaking English to me was not obligatory. This created a strange imbalance within my linguistic senses, I was still practicing French listening and comprehension on a daily basis, but to never talk was like somebody had rendered me mute. It made it impossible for me to communicate in a situation where everybody would be talking French; all the while Alessandro was present I may as well not have been.
Nevertheless, I acquired skills during my time in Toulon as an au-pair that will last with me. I learnt the real meaning of patience, I have learnt a little about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to teaching small children a foreign language. I learnt that I am not too old to play cars, or mummy and baby tiger, or pokemon cards, or kung-fu panda. I also learnt that 30 year olds still know how to have a good time…
Caroline, Alessandro’s mother, decided to take me out for a night with her friends. We went for a lovely meal in Bandol, the home of rosé wine and on this rare occasion I was encouraged to speak French with her friends. It was a great meal and a great atmosphere and I expected the night to end there. What naivety! Caroline was out to enjoy herself so we went to a bar, the night spiralled from there. Caroline and her friends were seizing their freedom from their children and their husbands and were enjoying themselves. We danced the night away quite literally! Eventually and much to the delight of our tired legs, the lights were turned on and it was time to leave. I had assumed all night long that Caroline had a plan for getting us home. As it turned out our nominated driver was drunk and Caroline had passed out. We were stuck. Luckily I had stayed pretty sober and was certainly, unlike the two remaining girls, still capable of forming words. I had thoroughly enjoyed myself that night and had talked to many people that I had met. I seized one of my new acquaintances and asked if he could take us to Toulon, unbelievably he agreed, even after he’d caught a glimpse of the two other passengers that were in danger of soiling his car! The problem was, I wasn’t quite sure where we lived, I had a vague idea but it required some explanation, speculation and a few wrong turns. At 5am; after a half an hour car conversation, a break to let Katie out for some “air” and a rummage around for Caroline’s misplaced house keys, thanks to me, we made it!
That night I had I had the realisation that I hadn’t spoken any English at all. I learnt that I had accomplished my mission. I had learnt French.
— Bethany Histed, 2013