When I wrote the memoir it concluded at our arrival in our house in France in 2004. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then, including my attempt to learn the language!
Upping sticks and dashing off to pastures new has always filled me with excitement, and letting go of the old has always been as easy as embracing the new. I have always eagerly welcomed new challenges and experiences. So in January 2004, when Bob suggested that we move to Spain and live on his extremely small RAF pension, it couldn’t happen fast enough for me. We had only known each other for two weeks. It was Easter 2004 when we set off for Spain on our motor-bikes on an information-gathering trip, stopping overnight in the Dordogne, in southern France. When we got up the next morning and started taking in the beauty of the surrounding area neither of us wanted to go any further. The Spanish dream faded and the French dream was born, and by November 2004, ten months after meeting, we had cut all ties with the U.K and moved into a small isolated house on the side of a wooded valley in the Dordogne.
The biggest challenge without a doubt (for me) has been the language. I never learned French at school, and had never yearned to learn it, and when we got off the ferry at Calais in 2004 I was uncomfortable attempting so much as hello and thank you. The first stop at French motorway services was positively embarrassing. I stood in the small queue looking up at the menu board unable to understand a thing. Had I understood the words I couldn’t have pronounced them! I remember pointing pathetically at a piece of chicken and nodding dumbly at whatever vegetables the serving lady waved her spoon at. A good thing I eat almost anything. It was a most uncomfortable experience. I was sure the lady would see me as the classic Brit’ who expected all ‘foreigners’ to speak English. She probably didn’t think that at all and more likely it was my feeling of being caught wanting that was the problem.
It really is helpful if you speak the language when you move to a new country. Bob speaks fluent German; little help when moving to the Dordogne where many villages were destroyed by the Germans in the war! Some of the French have long memories. I also speak a bit of German, gleaned from my first (German) husband and his family; and a bit of Spanish from many holidays in Mexico. I would have been a thousand times more comfortable with either of these languages. French for me was a baffling blank canvas, a mysterious flowing tongue where words all ran into each other like a river and became indistinguishable and inseparable. German and English seem more like a train with a row of railway carriages; words separated by spaces.
I am convinced that some have a better ear for languages than others, and Bob’s ear was infinitely more tuned when it came to understanding people. Although he had never learned French he seemed able to pick up enough of what they were saying to somehow get the picture. My picture however was a blur caused by seriously bad reception. My satellite receiver just couldn’t pick up the signal. I’ve since been told by my French teacher (a brilliant lady called Jane), who has taught a lot of couples who have retired to France, that it always seems to be the case: one finds it easier than the other. Based on all the ex-pat couples that I’ve met here Jane seems to be right. The problem with this can be that the one who finds it difficult leaves it all to their partner and avoids dealing with situations. This I have been guilty of, and not due to laziness but rather the fear of looking gormless and taking on that glazed look when I don’t understand.
Sometimes I think my frantic determination to hammer this new language into my brain has not helped. My brain goes stolidly at its own pace and ignores my screams of frustration. I want to learn. I want to know it all yesterday. But I find it so hard. I’ve taken French lessons, listened to a course on CD, listened to courses on the internet, tried reading books, listened to French radio, been to French conversation class, and now we also have French TV. I’m still not a lot further along after six and a half years – well, not when it comes to understanding what people are saying. As far as speaking goes my grammar is pretty dreadful, but I’ve learned loads of vocabulary and can happily construct all sorts of sentences. The trouble is when I ask a question there’s an eighty percent chance I won’t understand the answer! I’ve recently told myself to give myself a break. Considering I knew nothing six years ago I’ve actually learned an enormous amount. I can even make a hair appointment, or book a table for a meal over the phone! Having said that the last booking I made for a meal I requested for demain (tomorrow) which happened to be a Saturday. I didn’t know the café was closed on Saturdays. Thierry, the proprietor, who knows me, must have assumed I was trying to say Dimanche (Sunday). The pronunciation isn’t too dissimilar – especially the way I probably pronounced it! So off we went on a fairly long drive to our wedding anniversary meal only to find the café closed. We quickly worked out what had gone wrong, and phoned on the Sunday to cancel because we had other plans. Sure enough Thierry had booked us for Sunday.
Many people tell me I should get out and socialize more in order to improve my French, and they may be right, but I wouldn’t go to social events wherever I lived – unless dragged kicking and screaming. I love being a hermit in the woods, and draw the line at having to become something I’m not. I believe I’ll understand French in time, at my brain’s own pace. Bob’s brain is ten years younger than mine – which of course must be why he’s better at it!