Going back to school

Having moved to France permanently and meeting new people – English, French and Dutch, we heard that there was a French class above the Centre Cultural on Tuesday mornings. We all thought it would be fun to join in, my Mum and Dad would get a crash course from the beginning, and I could brush up on my French grammar. Our newly made friends warned us ‘beware of the teacher; she’s trés méchante’, very disagreeable. We thought no more of it. Monday evening, feeling all excited and full of enthusiasm, we got our things together, wrote our names neatly on the cahiers we had bought the weekend before. We were tempted to put an apple in our bags to sweeten the teacher.

The next morning we got up bright eyed and bushy tailed, and after breakfast set off for school. We met some friends in the car park and walked in with them. As we came up the stairs towards the classroom, I noticed in the room next to where the lesson was taking place, an old lady sobbing. I nudged my parents, and we promptly forgot about it as we entered the classroom. There were three teachers. The tables were in arranged in two squares, one for beginners, and one for the intermediates. There was a teacher for each table, we assumed. We found chairs and sat down, at the beginners table, slightly nervous, as we didn’t know what to expect.

Marie-Noel, our teacher, looked like a typical professor. She was quite plump, wore her blond hair in a quiff, her spectacles adding to her scholarly look. Marie-Noel welcomed us into the group with gushing enthusiasm. She greeted us the usual way, which unfortunately included kissing us twice on each cheek, as if we had been childhood friends. This is something one has to accept when living in France. She was bubbling with eagerness that we had joined the group. Our first impressions of her were that she had a jolly character and a willingness to help others. She was like a rose that brightened up the classroom.

Once she had finished with her greetings, she went and got us three photocopied textbooks and instructed us how to lay out our work in our exercise books. It had to be very precise, with margins on each page. At the top of each page we had to write the name of our textbook, the page number we were working from, and the date. All homework had to be done in a separate book using the same formula. We listened as she went through the first chapter with us. Then she set us some work and left us to study at our individual paces. We settled into a routine, occasionally helping each other. We began enjoying it. In the break, my father went down to the car to check on Juno, our West Highland Terrier, who was only a puppy. We had a chat with our friends, and whilst Marie-Noel was out of the room, told them we couldn’t understand why they had warned us how difficult she was. After the break we settled back into studying again.

Also working at our table was a Polish boy in his late teens that seemed to be working on his French in order to get a job. Marie-Noel sat beside him for a while and they chatted about his work. Suddenly the silence in the room was broken when she picked up the young man’s exercise book and clouted him round the ears, all the while shouting at the top of her lungs. Her charm had now evaporated. She suddenly had the eyes of an angry headmistress who was about to give her victim the cane. Her face was boiling with anger, in contrast to the lad who sat there quite relaxed, ignoring the duel as if he was quite used to the episode. Now we understood what our friends had warned us about. Obviously our dear professor had been teaching naughty schoolboys. Everything fell into place, we had now realised why the other teacher had been crying. There had been a big contretemps between her and Marie-Noel.

At the end of the lesson, she set us homework to do and we bid ‘au revoir’ to each other. We left the classroom with an air of contentment, as though we had achieved something that morning. On the way home we discussed what we had learnt, and despite seeing Marie-Noel in her true colours, we thought what a nice lady she was. We had fallen on our feet. The town council ran the class and the teachers were all volunteers. We promised each other we’d do at least an hour’s worth of French a day to keep our minds focused on the language. But like always, time flies. The following Monday arrived and still we had not thought of doing any work. We were too preoccupied with our new house and hobbies; riding, walking the dogs, looking for mushrooms, working on the house, exploring the countryside. It got to be late afternoon, when we finally opened our books, and like naughty schoolchildren that would hurriedly do their homework the night before, we did the same, using the same layout we were shown. When we had finished, we were proud of ourselves and packed our bags and sharpened our pencils ready for the lesson the next day.

The next day came and as we were driving to school, we discussed how we thought Marie-Noel would act this week. Obviously she had to be nice the first time as we were newcomers, and perhaps after a while her politeness would wear off and her true character would emerge. We settled Juno down, locked the car and headed upstairs towards the classroom. Marie-Noel gave us a hearty welcome again and drew up a chair to sit with us whilst she corrected our homework and went through our assignments for this week’s lesson. It was encouraging to see all the red ticks in our books. For a minute, I was in a time warp to when I was back at primary school, hoping to receive a gold star from my teacher.

Our main criticism of the course was that none of the teachers including Marie-Noel could speak any English. One could argue this was the correct way to learn a language, entering the classroom and not speaking any words in your mother tongue, just concentrating on studying the language you happen to be learning.

The third week was like ‘Groundhog Day’. Once again we got up early and eagerly set off to class. Unlike the previous week, on the way there we discussed whether Marie-Noel would be charming again. We were not newcomers to the group any more, so she didn’t have to be on her best behaviour. We went into the classroom and settled ourselves in the same place we had sat the previous week. Marie-Noel seemed to be off in a meeting with the other teachers in the staff room, so we just continued to work from where we left off the week before.

After the meeting the teachers joined the class. Marie-Noel came over to us, and it was obvious she wasn’t going to be her usual sparkling self. She had hardly said ‘Bonjour’, but picked up our homework books, glancing at them one by one, turning the pages over with a smirk on her face as if they were giving off a bad odour, twitching her mouth like a rabbit. The volcano had erupted, and sparks began exploding in our direction. She picked up my father’s book, and for what seemed like an hour, in reality it was only five minutes, she shouted in French at him, banging his book on the table ten times.

At that time we didn’t have any idea what she was saying. My father looked round the room to gain moral support, but everyone had their noses in their books, working hastily to hide their embarrassment. I broke out in a fit of uncontrollable nervous giggles as I never thought I would ever be in a class with my parents and see my Dad get told off by a teacher. When the shouting ceased, my father turned round and politely said, “Madam, if I could understand what you are saying, I wouldn’t have to come to class”. Then he realised, ‘I’m not a schoolboy, it isn’t compulsory for me to be here’ and like he always wanted to do, when he was at school, gathered his belongings together and walked out of the classroom. He was despondent when my mother and I didn’t walk out with him. Everyone was now looking around giving the ‘thumbs up’ from under their textbooks. After my father left the classroom, Marie-Noel calmed down slightly and checked my mother’s and my homework. She tried to smooth out the situation by asking, “Has your husband gone to check on your little dog?”

For the sake of the being polite, my mother replied ‘yes’. We both studied quietly until the end of the lesson and then went to meet Dad. Apparently we had made every teacher’s dream come true by doing too much homework. This episode was the subject of conversation of the English community for weeks.

Now, after living here for ten years, our French is pretty good. We’ve learnt a lot of the language from friends and neighbours. Everyday tasks, going to daily markets, buying produce, hearing the locals going about their daily lives and speaking their everyday French is a lesson in itself. When moving to a new country with only a small knowledge of the language, be adventurous and plunge in at the deep end.

We did, and never looked back.

© Sarah Weston 2006

Read more real life stories from expats in France

More on learning French

Moneycorp Banner