Oh Madame Dowson, ou etes-vous maintenant?
I’d love to tell you how much, de tout mon coeur, I wish I could remember the lingo you tried so valiantly to teach me.
All those lunes ago, I didn’t see why I needed to be able to say that Marie Claire was in the dining room with Madame Marsaud, or that Claudette had just spotted a vache.
And anyway, the French seemed a funny lot. All that wine. All those extremely long lunchtimes. All that fuss about cheese in varying states of decay. Why?
A Brinsworth Comp trip to Boulogne did little to change my dim view. The only highlight? The planning of what to wear, seeing as A. it was a non-uniform event and B. We were going to France, which all girls knew was the home of fashion. After much flicking through Jackie, Linda Smithies and I settled on frocks of tiered cheesecloth; very de rigeur in 1975.
I remember that. And I remember the dreadful bistrot meal dished up for a classful of horror-stricken little Tykes; plates arrived awash one side with runny mashed potato, skinny blue steak in a pool of blood on t’other.
Why on earth did everyone take a tyre company at their word and decide French food was something to aspire to?
I never wanted to go there again. But for some unfathomable reason, you, Madame Dowson, decided to Franco-fy me. You got me through O Level French and even on to A Level. Though what a shock that was; only a summer divided the translating of little passages about legumes and l’ecoles to full-blown chapters of Victor Hugo.
Present tense, past tense, future tense, imperfect tense, imperative tense and past-perfect tense... Gordon Blue, It was all pointless anyway; I was never going to be enticed back there for a platter of red and white soup.
And yes, here I am, back from yet another foray across le Channel. So entranced, so head over heels with the wine, the cheese, the everything, I’m already planning the next.
All week, though, I’d struggled to recall those schoolgirl smatterings of vocab, verbs and vowels. Every time the French spoke only French (humblingly often) I’d fumble for words and phrases and feel incredibly smug that I’d been understood - until a reply so rapid left me floundering.
Most times, people were very sweet about this. Though at one very posh restaurant, it was very clear the waiter had labelled me a fool of the Premier Cru.
He had babbled something at me with a quizzical raise of his brows. It was a question, clearly. But about what?
“Do you want water madame,” he obliged, his perfect English dripping with Gallic disdain.
Then I asked for directions to the toilet. Easy enough you’d say; all it required was a two-word reply. Only, I couldn’t remember my droit from my gauche and ended up a darkened room full of coats.
A cloakroom, perchance? I spotted a door, opened it and took one step in - only to discover I had made a mistake of classic English, Ealing comedy proportions. I was in the broom cupboard, inches from a row of mocking French mops, brushes and buckets. The exit was tout suite.