I’d read somewhere that French is little more than very modern Latin, and since I’d studied the former for a few years at school, and was reading for a degree in the latter, how hard could it be to pick up the lingo? So I rustled out my old exercise books, read Camus’ L’Etranger (a notoriously simple novel), watched Jean de Florette (where most of the characters speak in a heavy Provençal accent—the perfect excuse for not understanding any of it), and found myself employment doing odd jobs on a small château in the south of France.
The inhabitants were a three generational French family: the children, Hugo and Emilie, their mother, Valérie, and her parents, Philippe and Marie-Françoise (when I first asked her name, she did apologise for how long it was). Valérie’s sister, Sophie, was also on holiday there, and their other sister, Laurence (as I eventually grasped, Laurence is a female name in France), visited frequently with her partner and his two sons (one of whom was also called Hugo, or rather grand Hugo as opposed to petit Hugo). It was a busy place, and Philippe, in his mid-seventies, was the alpha male of the household. “You [pause] are [pause] a bricoleur,” he announced to me when I arrived. His daughters quickly reprimanded him for speaking English to me, and pointed out to him that a bricoleur is a handyman.
But apart from Philippe’s occasional lapses into Franglais, the family did speak in very standard French, which meant I had some chance of understanding what they said; they had moved down from the north of France, near Paris, some five years previously. One day I overheard a pair of local plumbers talking to one another—they had been called in to fix a leak. I couldn’t catch a single word, but they were clearly using a Romance language. I considered Italian (that part of France is relatively near Italy), but their speech wasn’t accentuated enough. Perhaps it might be Occitan, a language found in southern France and northern Spain, but it’s only the very elderly who speak it now, so that seemed unlikely. It had to be Spanish, I reasoned; their voices were very nasal. Yes, it was definitely Spanish. Sophie later asked whether I had noticed their southern accent. I suppose I had, in a sense.
So that was one of my first lessons: not all French people talk like they do on educational recordings. But the thing I least expected to learn was how to talk to dogs. There was a broad and shallow river near the château, where Philippe would take the canines for a paddle and swim in the afternoons, and I’d often come with him. The oldest of the dogs was called Seven (in English; I did ask Philippe why, and although I didn’t catch all of his response, I don’t think he quite knew either). The other three were a hyperactive puppy, a clever, though snotty, black dog, and a stupid white one with floppy ears.
Another lesson I soon learnt was that if you wanted to play go-fetch with the stupide one (with pebbles; I would throw one out, she’d swim after it, dive and bring back a different one), you must say attends (“wait”), or else, in her eagerness to get at the stone—whether in fact you’re holding one or not—she may well bite your hand before you throw. Holding out your other hand so she can’t get near also helps.
Once she’d figured that I didn’t mind playing this game with her (Philippe wasn’t having any of it), she had no intention of carrying on with our walk. As far as she was concerned, it was time to fetch stones. Words like aller! (“go!”) became vital, and likewise gestures, principally a good hard push in the right direction. Hopla! worked well too.
And that’s a word that isn’t simple to translate. You might render it as “let’s go” or “come on” but that would be to underestimate its power. All previous comments, suggestions and arguments wither before it. Philippe was fond of it, and not only with the dogs. We’d been having lunch (with local wine, of course), and had moved on to the cheese; we had all had our fill, but a portion remained, sizeable, yet not worth putting back in the fridge. It was offered to everyone at the table, and everyone declined citing satiety, including myself. Hopla! And it’s on my plate.
The riverbed, unsurprisingly, was full of stones—three types, in fact. A rocher is the sort of large rock you stub your toe on, or summersault over when one lurks unseen in the river (a habit of Philippe’s; it was always the same rocher); a caillou is the sort of pebble you throw to a certain dog to fetch; and a pierre is the sort of stone you jokingly threaten to throw at a certain dog’s head in order to wind up your daughters.
And racine is a root. I first encountered this one in a conversation I had with Valérie. By this point I had no idea what was going on, but the word racine helpfully jumped out at me. So I tried to talk about the playwright, while Valérie continued with roots. It didn’t matter too much, though, because soon enough the conversation took some incomprehensible turn to some other equally incomprehensible topic. And I still don’t know what roots she could possibly have been wanting to discuss.
I didn’t have any Racine with me (it’s a shame you can’t capitalise spoken words), but when I was still in England, I had gone to a second-hand bookshop in London, and, after my success with L’Etranger, bought a couple of novels in French. It turns out, though, that Flaubert and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry are incomprehensible. I mentioned this idiocy of mine a couple of times to different members of the family; they always suggested I make a start on Proust.
If vocabulary is difficult, then let me reassure you that pronouncing French is easy, although it becomes harder when you want French people to understand you. In one of my attempts to get my tongue round the language, I pronounced the lls of la ville softly, like you do with Marseille, and ended up with la vie, which meant I managed to ask Hugo, the nine year old, whether he liked life—his answer was a bemused oui, you’ll be reassured to hear.
Hugo played with the dogs a lot (one of his favourite jokes was to rub Seven’s belly vigorously, so that his leg involuntarily played air guitar) and shared one very audible feature with the puppy: if you ever heard non shouted in the house, it was always directed at him or her. And if it was the puppy’s fault, you could be certain that you were about to hear the verb sauter, specifically, ne sautes pas! (“don’t jump!”). She had a habit of leaping up at people, one that the family were trying desperately to train her out of.
But that verb came in handy elsewhere, as it happened. Along the river stood a cliff, where, as Philippe explained, “the people who jump” would gather; they were local teenagers, who would hang out and occasionally take a dive into the water, which they claimed was ten metres deep there. I was suspicious about how they knew that. Anyway, if I hadn’t known the word for jump, it would have been harder to follow the conversation between Philippe and one of the lads that ended with my also jumping off that cliff. I reflected on whether it was a sensible idea, but, as I later remarked to Valérie, only during my flight downwards.
But then, I did reflect really very hard while I fell; a life of paralysis seemed probable. You had to take a running jump and throw yourself a good yard off the edge to avoid being caught by the rocks at the bottom (did I mention I’m not much of an athlete?), and I could see their menacing orange hue as I whistled down. The local lads said that I only just missed them.
But to return to more important matters, the puppy also gave me the chance to practise the verb mordre (“bite”), mostly in the phrase, ne me mords pas (“don’t bite me”), because another one of her ways of playing was to grab hold of your arm and then tug. She would never bite very hard, but she was the size of a standard adult dog, so not very hard was still quite hard. The family didn’t have too much of a problem with this; they’d say some magic words like, non, j’ai dit non (“no, I said no”), and she’d stop soon enough. But I struggled to be so authoritative, and towards the end of my stay there, there would come times when she would make it her job to play with me, however little I shared this sentiment. I’d end up running to another room and forcing a door between us, or running into or out of the house.
One morning I’d decided to take some photographs and had taken a walk to the end of the garden, which was more of a field, when the puppy bounded up to me and insisted on playing. No one else was around, so I mustered all the French I had. Streams of non, arretes, ne me mords pas came forth from my lips, but the only respite I had was when the stupid white dog happened to wander over, and the puppy ran off to bite her—temptingly floppy—ears and wind her up. But as soon as I rushed off with hasty strides back to the château, she realised something was afoot, and bounded back over to me, insisting again that we adhere again to her notion of fun. I eventually escaped, with only minor wounds, but in all the time I was there I don’t think she once did what I said; perhaps it was my accent.
Alexander Woolley is reading for a degree in Classics at the University of Oxford. His French is still not quite up to conversation with humans.