When I was 13 years old my father took sabbatical leave from the University of Melbourne to do further research in botany at the Université de Montpellier in the south of France.
We said our goodbyes to horses, ducks, guinea pigs, rabbits, a dog and a cat as our family of five left a gorgeous, rambling old orchard house in Melbourne’s outer east and headed for a tiny two-bedroom apartment in a high-rise building in an area known as Résidence les Roses on Rue de Louvain.
We were picked up from the airport by one of dad’s colleagues and the highlight of the 29-hour journey from old home to new home was Maurice driving his Citroen straight onto the footpath in the middle of Montpellier and parking so that mum and dad could somehow negotiate (with virtually no French) their electricity, gas and water connections. I vividly remember the French casually strolling around our parked car which had well and truly blocked all pedestrian traffic. Not one hostile reaction. Not one glaring look. It takes more than a footpath obstacle to shake the French.
We arrived at our apartment in one of the four large blocks of flats. There was a garden in the middle of the quadrangle and our apartment was in the top building on the far left, ground floor (see image below and apologies but I have no idea why Google has pinpointed an auto parts store in the middle of the communal garden). Our introduction to French food on that very first night was a dinner of cannelloni in a can from the small epicerie down the street. I still get a slight twitch opening cans …
In hindsight I really don’t know how my parents did it. Pretty gutsy stuff in their mid 30s moving two teenage daughters and a seven-year-old son to a foreign country for an adventure. Initially it was hard to adjust – no pets, no space, no friends, not having a clue what anyone was saying and the woman on the 1er étage kept yelling at the three of us to be quiet as soon as we made a move. We soon learned that she was one of the main gatherers of snails after a good downpour and so Suzie and I would quickly get our buckets and collect as many escargot as we could find merely to seek revenge on Madame.
We had been in France only a few days when it was the ‘rentrée’ – the first day of school after the long summer break. My brother was driven to the école primaire (for kids 6-11 years) and my sister started her adventure at a very liberal lycée (I think all she did was ride around on mopeds with good-looking French boys for the entire time she was there). I, on the other hand, was dropped at the front gate of the very formal College Camille Claudel on the Avenue d’Assas.
I asked mum and dad if they knew where I should go and mum suggested I join the military-style queue at the front door. Immediately a girl from Iran came and stood beside me. Neither of us could speak French well, only Australian school French which really didn’t cut it – “Bonjour, what is your cat’s name” just didn’t seem appropriate at that point. She couldn’t speak English and I certainly couldn’t speak Persian and yet we paired as the new foreign students and from that moment we shared a special bond. God knows what we talked about. Can’t really remember. Maybe at that age it just didn’t matter.
I struggled with all the formalities in the beginning. I had different coloured notebooks for each subject and all of them of course were French ruled. This paper consists of an 8mm x 8mm grid with lighter or thinner horizontal lines spaced 2mm apart inside the main grid and a left margin. Getting used to writing within this grid took some time.
I studied History, French, English, Math and Latin. At the end of my first year I passed all subjects … except for English. “How on earth did that happen?” I hear you ask. Well here’s a snapshot of my time spent studying my primary language in a high school in France.
In my first class I learned that my male teacher from England thought that all Australians should best stay in the ‘colony’ as they are a bunch of uneducated convicts and no amount of history would erase the general thuggery among us. Great start. Yippee. Now all he had to do was prove the point. “Attiwill. Stand up, come to the front of class and spell ‘school’ phonetically on the blackboard”. Sorry, can you run that one past me again? If only Pauline Hanson had made “Please explain” vaguely amusing back then. From that moment on it was all down hill. “Attiwill. What is the pluperfect of ‘to be’?” “Attiwill. Stand up and tell the class a sentence demonstrating the past conditional.” “Attiwill. Refrain from teaching the class slang.”
I passed History even though it was mostly rote learning and I would often have to stand up in front of the class and recite two or three text-heavy pages from memory.
I passed Latin. I found it quite logical and a relatively easy language to learn and my teacher was a sweetie who gave me the occasional free pass.
I passed Math because there was a lovely bloke in my class called Olivier who used to let me cheat off his worksheets during tests.
I even passed French. Goodness knows how as it was advanced grammar and reasonably complex texts but somehow I made it past a 50% grade.
English on the other hand. “Phhhhtttttt!” as the French would say. Try spelling that phonetically Monsieur Anglais.
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