Learning How to Hear


Sometimes I get the chance to Step Off the Treadmill close to home. A six-hour drive, and I was in another culture and in one of the most beautiful cities on the planet.

I went to Québec City for a week of French immersion classes. One week is ludicrous of course, but it is what I could spare in terms of time. I thought it would give me an introduction, a sense of whether or not I could, eventually, learn la belle langue.

Part of the joy of this adventure was my host. I was billeted with a wonderful and interesting woman with a deep family history in Québec, from whom I learned about the gracious, artistic and intellectually vibrant world of the Ursuline nuns. She’d grown up in the convent and considered it her home. She maintained that I could not understand the history of the city without visiting the convent museum.

The Ursuline Convent in Québec City, founded in 1639, is the oldest school for women in North America. Recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the school became renowned for the wide and diverse education that it gave young women. The young pupils lived at the convent, shut off from the outside world, until they were ready to enter society. The nuns were a political force in the town, and their artwork, especially their embroidery, is world renowned. In fact, the school was the first women’s arts centre in New France, and the display at the museum showcases the school’s emphasis on music, painting, drawing, sculpture and embroidery. Although the girls were not being raised to be scholars, they received a comprehensive education in literature, languages, astronomy, biology, physics, mathematics and, of course, religion.

If my host is any indication, today’s graduates from the Ursuline Convent School must be amazingly accomplished women. She holds several advanced degrees and has an incisive and enquiring mind. There is a feminist pride in her intellectual upbringing and in her home. Living in her house connected me with a grace and style that reflected the courtly homes of New France. It is a home filled with her family’s possessions, or at least those that she has not already donated to museums. Her family dining table is used in the Langevin Block on Parliament Hill.

Some of this information I received in French. But my responses required English. My host was incredibly patient and continually encouraged me to keep up my simplistic patter of French words. But too often I would explode with a torrent of complex words because I desperately wanted to express a thought that wasn’t in the present tense.

Many people in Québec asked me why I was trying to learn French. They usually asked me right after I had mangled the simplest of verbs. My only reply is that I have always wanted to. I have been embarrassed by my unilingualism for 35 years. Now in my advancing age, working on a new language has an added bonus of being good for my brain. Even if I never learn it, I’m building new pathways in mon vieux cerveau just by trying. It is a good time to start.

There was a student in my class, a man slightly older than I who, after having a stroke, had been given six months to live. “You might possibly make it a bit longer if you tried to learn a new language, and learned to play the violin,” he was told. Over two years later, he bounded at every new word like a lifeline. He became my inspiration for forging ahead.

The Edu-Inter School where I was enrolled has a new intake every Monday. I arrived with three other “newbies” into a class in progress. There were students of all ages from Mexico, the Philippines, the U.S., China, Vietnam and Canada, most of whom had been at the school for at least a few weeks. Many were staying for the entire summer. I had no idea what we would be focusing on during my brief stay, but as luck would have it, the week that I landed in was dedicated to the subjunctive – a verb that I am not sure I understand in English. I was confronted with a wealth of grammatical minutiae … the subjunctive is always used for matters of the heart, for opinion, for commands, but never used of issues of fact or objectivity. Always use the base form of the verb, except when Nous and Vous are irregular. Only in sentences with two subjects. Always for impermanence. “Gardé la différence à “je” et “nous” donc le présent.” Etc.

I wish I understood what it actually meant. Never having had grammar in school (ah, the days of “free” school and expressive learning), I was always many steps behind. And yet I had great fun. In the afternoons we played games and discussed current affairs and issues – free speech, freedom of religion, what constitutes art. I found myself pushing aside my terror and diving into the discussion with half-baked opinions and barely formed sentences. One afternoon, the professor proposed a game of “Speed Dating”. We were each given a photo and told to invent a character. This I knew how to do! Drama exercise 101 – create a backstory! With our backstory in place, we moved from person to person trying to find the perfect match. My French might have been the worst in the room, but I reveled in the acting exercise, mangling verbs but giving a stellar performance.

By Wednesday afternoon, however, my brain was total frozen. Tous les mots ont été perdu. Our guided tour of the Citadel, in French, was too much for me and I wept with the frustration of not being able to ask a burning question. (“Why did the Ursuline nuns, put up the Scottish regiment who were fighting France for the possession of Québec?” Mon Dieu, they even knit the Scottish lads some socks. Answer – by playing nice they got to keep their convent after the war, and were favoured by the English. Those socks are probably the reason that the convent still exists today.) I had to keep asking for facts to be repeated, thinking that I hadn’t understood what was said. That canon took 12 years to assemble? Really? It shoots a canon ball 5 kilometres? C’est vrai?

The canon at the Citadel, aimed at Upper Canada
The canon at the Citadel, aimed at Upper Canada

But my exhaustion was a turning point. I began to realize that I was hearing things correctly. My ears were getting stronger, much stronger than my ability to speak. And this, actually, was my great triumph. I decided that my goal for the week was to hear better. To understand what I was hearing. And although I may have laughed a bit late at the jokes, my brain was interpreting sound into meaning, by-passing translation. I looked down at my page of notes and discovered that I was writing them in French. C’est extraordinaire. I am still at the very bottom of the mountain of learning French. Going forward will require a daily commitment. But à ce moment, je suis très heureuse. I have dipped into Canada’s other solitude, and for a few brief moments could hear a harmony.

Je me souviens... à la citadelle
Je me souviens…

Goodbye to France, Hello to England

On our second to last night in France, Suzanne and Christian invited us over for dinner and I asked if I could make the dessert. I wanted to make a Tarte aux Mourres. Picking blackberries brings out an almost religious feeling in me. The deep purple, sun-warmed berries, bloated with juice, line all of the road verges. Such beauty. I love picking them with the sun at my back, hearing, just on the other side of the verge, the gentle snorting and snuffling of a large Charolaise cow.

However, there is a bit of treachery there. A bit of pain is part of the process. The thorns are sharp, and the roadsides are plagued with stinging nettles. These seem to thrive right beside the best berries. Tim says the experience is an important moral lesson –in order to receive this extraordinary gift, you will have to undergo a bit of pain. But it will be worth it in the end. And it is. We are just at the end of the blackberry season now, but Tim and I were still able to pick over a quart of blackberries.

To make the tarte, I approximated a recipe from memory that leaves most of the fruit uncooked – it is a great pie if you want your fruit to still taste really fresh. The recipe I have included works for any fresh fruit.

The meal at Suzanne & Christian’s was a true French feast – an extraordinary 5-course, 5-bottle meal. We began with some true Champagne, lovely tiny bubbles that whetted our appetites as we nibbled a local pastry and tiny tomatoes from Suzanne’s garden. Next was “Vin des Fossiles” from Saone-et-Loire. It is made from a grape I have never heard of – Auxerrois – and was crisp and light and lovely with our tomato tarte appetizer.  The François Pinte Aloxe-Corton was a gorgeous and rich Pinot to go with our thin Entrecot steaks. We fried these on a griddle at the table, with some shallots. Suzanne made a beautiful dish of aubergines, potatoes, tomatoes and Parmesan cheese. The whole mixture brought out the pepper taste of the Pinot. For the cheese course, Bryan chose a special wine from his part of Christian’s wine cellar – a Givry Premiere Cru 2000. The way that this wine went with the cheese course is impossible for me to describe. The cheeses themselves were correctly eaten in an order – the soft Brie, followed by the dry chèvre and completed with the creamy St. Agur blue. My Tarte aux Mourres was about 3” high, solid with the blackberries that we had picked that morning. A great success, it went perfectly with the Cremant de Bourgogne, 2008, Veuve Ambal.

Christian admits that they don’t eat in this true French fashion very often! We felt very spoiled.

The next morning I had one final class with Suzanne. I am deeply grateful for the friendship that Suzanne and Christian have shown me. After the class they offered me an aperitif, a Vin Doux Naturel. It is a Vallée du Rhône Grenache that is 16% proof, a slightly sweet, thick wine, served chilled. Not sweet and viscous like an ice wine, but very smooth and very earthy. They gave me olives and dried pork from the same region as the wine to taste as well. Just a little nibble to share before I left. I don’t think I have advanced much with my French, but there are so many wonderful things I have learned!

Christian and Suzanne and our aperitif

It was a day of lasts. I walked up the hill past the chickens, past Claudette and Robert’s to a last lunch on the patio. Bryan’s special Frissé salad. It is a simple, filling country salad of Frissé lettuce, Lardons (bits of pork), Comte cheese, and topped with a fried egg. Bryan keeps a big jar of home made salad dressing in the cupboard to pour generously over the top of anything and everything. Of course you sop up all of the salad dressing with fresh baguette, and wash it all down with local Sauvignon Blanc.  How can we possibly leave this heaven?

But we do, on an early morning TGV (Tran Grand Vitesse), from Le Cruesot to Lille, Lille to London. Our gorgeous Maddy is at St. Pancras station to meet us, to guide us and help heft suitcases to Surbiton, Bryan and Peta’s wonderful London home. With loving family around, we get down to the business of making the transition to a new phase of the adventure.

Jo, Peta, Tim & Maddy in the garden at Tolworth

Starting, of course, with a large, welcoming, meal.

Family dinner at Tolworth. The eating continues!

Parlez-vous Français?

Suzanne has been very patient with me. Since our return from Switzerland, I have been walking down the hill to her house in the mornings, to try and grapple with passé compose, impératif, et futur.

The Road to Suzanne's. The biggest predator for the chickens is the occasional car

Because I did not have English grammar drilled into me at school, French has always been a nightmare. My great frustration is that I have no subtlety. No kindness. « Would you mind looking over my homework » becomes “Look at my homework”, which is abrasive of course. So we work on:« Est-ce que tu pourrais regarder mon devoirs ? » and I vow to try and remember (je me souviens) the verb pouvoir in its many forms. To find a kinder, gentler approach.

Suzanne has been giving me exercises from books for children. I know that her grandson Baptiste finds this hilarious. Baptiste is 7, with a lovely toothless grin. He tells me that he gets about 2 Euros for each tooth from la Petite Souris (the equivalent of the tooth fairy). On Monday he gave me a recipe for chocolate cookies. Not sure why, but perhaps he wanted me to improve upon the brownies I had made for the family (see « Une opération bilingue »). The recipe was from a children’s magazine, similar to “Highlight Magazine” in the US, with fun drawings of child chefs carrying mounds of chocolate, and smashing it with a hammer.

The gauntlet is thrown, and I decide to make a batch of cookies before heading over. This means I begin my day clattering around in the kitchen at 8:00 a.m. Measurements for recipes in the UK and Europe are all in weights. Unfortunately, there is not a set of kitchen scales here, and, being used to volume measurements, my approximations are pretty wonky. As I start to melt the butter, I can’t believe how good it smells. It is local, of course, and fills the kitchen with an irresistible, sweet, warmth. And the eggs! The yolks are orange.

I chop up the hunks of chocolate (I’ve been told that no one here uses chocolate chips, and I can see why – chocolate chunks are so much better!) The recipe is dead simple and scrumptious. I’ve included an English translation for “Baptiste’s Chocolate Chunk Cookies”, but you’ll have to figure out the weight measurements if that is the way you cook. That’s a translation I can’t do.

The lesson with Suzanne goes well, perhaps because of the cookies which are much appreciated by Baptiste and his sister. We get into a conversation about school lunches and Suzanne tells me that schools in France have cafeterias so that children can have a proper, 3-course lunch. She bemoans the fact that lunch is only an hour long for the children. Not nearly a long enough lunch for a Frenchman! When I try to explain that Canadian children have about 25 minutes, sitting at their desks, to eat whatever they have brought from home, she is justifiably appalled. She tells me that when she was at school, they regularly had 5-course lunches. And that for holiday lunches she was given Crémant! (Champagne). Have I mentioned that this is a civilized country?

On my way back from Suzanne’s Claudette stops me to give me 4 lovely courgettes. Claudette always greets me with a smile that melts my heart. I tell her that the lettuce that she gave me the day before (she calls it “salade”) became a wonderful Nicoise salad, and she and Robert are excited that I am able to rhyme off the ingredients in French. Les olives, les haricots verts, le thon, les pommes de terre, les tomates. That, at least, is easy from years of reading bilingual labels in Canada.

We manage a conversation about gardens, and I try to explain how my garden has very little earth, mostly rock, but that I live in a beautiful wood. She has barbed wire around her garden to protect it from les vaches. I try to explain the problem of deer, for which I have no word, and she teaches me “le cerf” et “la biche”. She speaks beautifully, explains how hard the garden and farm work is, how large the house is with just the two of them in it now. But as we look over the fields beyond, and breathe in the deep quiet of the countryside, we both know that we are standing in a privileged place. She asks if I will be back again and all I can say is j’espère. I hope.

Robert, Claudette and Albertino (from Portugal, he helps on the farm)

Une opération bilingue

King Charles VIII of France died in April 1498 at the lavish Château d’Amboise, after hitting his head on a low beam.  We learn this little bit of history on the day that Tim is to have his stitches removed, from the wound incurred from banging his head on a low beam in France.

Karine arrived at Bel-Air in the late morning, with a bag of supplies in hand. When we were at the hospital last week, Tim was told to make an appointment with a nurse (l’infirmier) to have the stitches removed. But we weren’t told how or where to make this appointment. Fortunately neighbor Suzanne’s daughter Karine is a nurse and she volunteered to come to the house to do the deed.

I make a pot of coffee, and we sit out on the patio, sheltering ourselves from the heat with a large blue umbrella. Karine speaks some English, and the visit is conducted in a mixture of languages. She is barely given a chance to sip her coffee because Bryan is very excited. Camera in hand he wants to record the “operation”, and has spent the previous night thinking through an appropriate script and commentary. Tim is positioned in the chair at the head of the table and we are ready to go.

Karine washes her hands and then lays her tools out on the table — 2 vials of antiseptic, 1 vial of antibiotic (just in case), plastic tweezers, scissors, scalpel, sterile gauze and wads of cotton — all carefully packaged in sterile plastic sleeves. She cleanses the wound (la blessure) and deftly slices through the blue thread de chaque point. Each one is quickly removed, held aloft and applauded. The operation is a success. Tim’s head is in tact.

“Karine, Je fait des “brownies” pour ta famille”. I send her home with a large plate, freshly made and still warm. We ask if we should be paying for the supplies, to which she replies, “Sarkozy va payer”. Thank you, again, French health care!

Working on my French is an uphill battle. There are a surprising number of words in my memory banks, but the verbs are a nightmare. Other than in high school, my French studies have been half-hearted attempts at self improvement: a series of classes with my dear neighbor Pauline, a dreadful evening college class, and forays into ancient French school text books. Suzanne has agreed to take me on for a few conversational classes, and I have met her down at her house several times. Elle est très gentille and accepts payment in Crémant (the local sparkling wine). After an hour I have managed to tell her I love her (instead of that I love my son). And I leave telling her that I am bad feet. It seems my default is always Je suis, which gives me a frustratingly arrogant air.

But Suzanne and her husband Christian are patient. I am given homework to gently steer me toward a past tense.  I pour through the back of the Robert Collins Super Senior français/anglais dictionnaire, scratching around the edges of comprehension.

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