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French and me

July 30, 2017

Some months ago, when I was going through a particularly bad spider solitaire patch, I decided I had to find something to distract me. I remembered my friend Garry, who is attempting to learn French, telling me about a programme he uses to do revision. I asked him what it was and he told me: Duolingo. I found the site and started an account.

That first day I signed up to do three segments (approximately fifteen minutes) a day and ended up doing over 100. (Well, I had a lot of catching up to do, didn’t I?)

I have attempted on a number of occasions to master French as a second language.

I remember my mum coming back from a parent teacher night when I was about twelve or thirteen, a couple of years into being taught French. She reported the comment of the French teacher, who complimented my accent, saying, “What she says isn’t always right, but it sounds right.” Oo la la. I had such a crush on that French teacher, even if I can no longer remember his name.

Three more years of French in secondary school, almost none of which stuck.

A trip to the south of France in my early twenties to visit a friend studying in Montpellier. She’d sent me a surprisingly long list of the trains from Paris which turned out to be wrong. By the time I found someone in Gare de Lyon willing and able to speak any English, I discovered that the last train to Montpellier had departed fifteen minutes earlier from Gare d’Austerlitz. She’d also sent me the name of a road in Saint Germain which had a number of low-cost hotels. I made my way there and trudged up and down the road in the November rain, making my halting enquiry at each hotel: “Bon soir. Parlez-vous Anglais?” The response was always a nasty “non!” And so I soldiered on: “Avez-vous une chambre pour ce soir?” At each hotel the reaction was another nasty “Non !” As I was walking towards the last hotel sign in the road, thinking I would probably have a complete meltdown in the lobby if there was no room available, a miracle occurred. Through the rain and the mist, a taxi appeared. I flagged it down and said to the driver: “L’Hotel Ritz, s’il vous plait.”


At one o’clock in the morning the taxi deposited me at the Ritz. I don’t remember there being a doorman. There was one fellow working at the reception desk. He turned to look at me, soaking wet, hair plastered to my head. “Pardonnez-moi,” I asked plaintively. “Parlez-vous anglais?” He grinned from ear to ear and said, “But of course.” I wanted to leap over the counter and shag him. Instead I asked if there was a room available. (I didn’t care how much it cost, I would figure out how to pay the credit card bill later.) Yes, he said, apologising that it was a small room. I told him I didn’t care, a broom cupboard would suffice. In the absence of a porter, he carried my bag up himself and showed me into the small room with a brass bed and a mahogany wardrobe. Five minutes later he rang the room to tell the times of the trains to Montpellier in the morning and ask which one I would like to reserve. I told him and he said I could collect my ticket from the concierge. I have no idea now how much that night at the Ritz cost me, but it was a lot. And worth every centime.

Another trip with another friend a couple of years later from London to Paris, Venice and Nice, the two of us flailing around Paris with vaguely remembered school girl French, humiliated by mocking waiters. I decided I hated France.

It was a decade before I returned to Paris, this time with Mike as part of our long European vacation. Even Mike, fluent in French, referred to the woman behind the desk of our hotel as the Dragon Lady. She clearly hated tourists and felt honour bound to let them know. I remember almost nothing about our four days in Paris other than my renewed hatred of everyone in the city.

From Paris we headed south to stay at the Montpellier friend’s home in Vias. The morning after we arrived we went to the market. I was recovering from laryngitis and had a cough to go with it. At one stall a woman offered me a handful of cherries, good, she said, for coughs. In that moment of kindness I realised I did not hate France, I just hated Paris. The rest of France was another world where people were eager to understand my faltering French and eager to make themselves understood – scribbled notes, hand gestures, whatever it took. I was enchanted.

So enchanted that when we were back in Vancouver I decided to take advantage of the free tuition offered to the families of UBC faculty to take some French classes. I wish I could say I attained some level of fluency through those classes but that would not be true. An improvement, oui, mais c’est tout.

The first opportunity I had to try out my French didn’t come until 2001 when I was living in London again and my friend Rowan and I decided to have a Eurostar break in Paris. I had some trepidation about this trip, remembering the horrors of the service sector. I was  astonished. I could only assume something had been added to the water. Even though I clearly did not speak fluent French, every waiter and shop assistant was perfectly pleasant. It was a great weekend, but it did make me realise I’d forgotten more than I remembered from those UBC French classes.

Off I went to Alliance Française de Londres for some refresher classes. Weekends in Paris became a regular feature of life in London. I made an interesting discovery: I could go to Paris on my own and get by. Not fluent, not by any stretch of the imagination, but I could have basic conversations. I’d arrive in Paris speaking French like a four-year-old and by the end of the weekend I’d be speaking like a seven-year-old. It may not sound like much, but it was a big deal for me. (Oh, and by the way, I have been complimented by actual French people on my accent, so I guess that long ago teacher was on to something.)

So, anyway… Duolingo. It was surprising – given that I’ve had no exposure to French for several years – how quickly the basics came back. (Oh, right, it’s la robe rouge, not la rouge robe.) According to Duolingo I am now 27% fluent in French. This is clearly bogus. I’ve yet to manage any level of comfort speaking in anything but the present tense. I can wiggle around the future with aller, but attempting the past tense makes me very tense. Also, there is no way I now know more than a quarter of the entire French vocabulary, so I have no idea how Duolingo does it’s scoring.

In addition to Duolingo, Garry has been going to a conversational French group which meets every week at the library. I’ve started going, too. On a good day I can follow 50% of what is being said, on a bad day I’m lucky to claim 10% comprehension. On a good day I actually contribute to the conversation. It’s interesting that the people I find it easiest to understand are the actual French people, even though they often speak far too quickly for me. The Anglophones in the group who speak French with a Quebecois accent are completely incomprehensible to me.

Did Duolingo free me from spider solitaire. Yes, it actually did for a while. Then I started to lapse, as earlier posts admit. But I am trying to retrain myself. At that moment around four in the afternoon when I decide to see if there is a move to play in my Facebook scrabble game and finding there isn’t need something to fill that suddenly gaping hole, I am trying to go back to Duolingo for top up practice. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I can but try. Wish me luck.

Et maintenant, je dois faire mes devoirs.

À demain.

PS : Bloody hell. Whilst Googling for an image of the Ritz to include in this, I discovered that the cheapest room rate is now $1500 per night! Mind you, this is what you get.

ritz room

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