“Ooo la la. Vin et fromage”, I muttered to myself on Sunday as I attempted to stuff supplies for a month in Lyon into my suitcase. “Très bien. J’aime.” I noted, first of all, that I sounded quite mad. That wasn’t news. I also noted that I sounded rather like someone who had only the most rudimentary knowledge of French. I tried, for my peace of mind, to string together a more sophisticated sentence. I couldn’t. It was a good moment to remind myself of the purpose of the next month.
There are lots of problems with the Oxford French course. At interview, it’s made fairly clear that fluency is not expected. Fine, I thought. I assumed I’d be able to make up for it over the next two years. Language teaching is college based which means that, unlike in German, there is no streaming – nothing to account for the huge discrepancies in experience and confidence – and our classes are tailored to suit the college group. Unfortunately for me, this was a group whose experience of French and France was vastly more impressive than mine: a few holidays in British-dominated campsites in Brittany, and a week of speaking English to my English friends on French exchange in year 10 because none of our exchange partners liked us. And while my knowledge of French might have eventually been enough to get me almost full marks in my A Level paper, it was nothing compared to the effects of having lived in Paris, having au-paired in France, having a holiday home here, having parents with French degrees. And so, stunned into scared silence by the terrifying fluency of my classmates early on in first year, I stayed silent in conversation classes, listening, note-taking, understanding, but never speaking, too embarrassed by the idea of the garbled mess of terrible pronunciation and hesitation that would come out if I dared to open my mouth.
(Once, in second year, we had to give presentations about our favourite museums and galleries in Paris. In the question and answer bit, the lectrice asked questions about other galleries, asking, for example, where one might go to see work by Monet. I’ve never even been to Paris.)
I started my year abroad in Germany because it was a way of avoiding, for just a little longer, my predicament: I can’t really speak French. Or, at least, I would really rather avoid it. Listening? Fine. Writing? A doddle. Reading? I’ve ploughed through 80-book reading lists with very little trouble. But when it comes to actually saying the words – with the added pressure of French being internationally recognised as such a beautiful language – I fumble and flap. During my first few months in Leipzig I became increasingly aware that I didn’t think I’d be managing to do the same type of internship in France. I was completely happy to ask questions in German; to check I’d understood; to clarify. Sometimes I’d try to imagine doing those things in French and would cringe at how badly I’d fare.
In April, I’m moving to Paris to start a very exciting internship with a French TV series. I’m very much looking forward to those three months. I’m going to be living with Noonie in a wonderful flat in the Marais, coming home to friendly conversation – a novelty after Leipzig – and perhaps vin et fromage too. So many people have said they want to visit me that I’ll have to start turning them away. (If only). I’ll be soaking up Paris in the Spring – it must be famous for a reason – and hopefully reenacting that iconic scene from An Education (see below), which, I admit, is probably part of the reason I’m doing this French degree in the first place.
But first, a month in Lyon! I’m doing an intensive French course at the Alliance Francaise. I have three hours of lessons every morning, and, entirely unlike in Leipzig, abundant free time to explore this fantastic city. I’ve been here for less than forty-eight hours and it’s already made an impression. It’s big and bustling and completely beautiful, divided by two mighty rivers along which I plan to run. (Ha). I’m staying in student accommodation, which is quite a culture shock: there’s no wifi for one thing, and the ‘kitchen’ contains only a hob and a microwave. I brought cutlery from home, and had to invest in a sauce pan. I’ve been frantically sourcing ideas for ‘one pot meals’. The Tupperware box in which I bought my lunch for the journey will have to suffice as a plate this month. My weeknights on my thin, hard mattress in Lyon are going to be interspersed with exciting weekend plans, including my first ever visit to Paris, and skiing with Cato in the Italian alps. I might even make use of my extensive free time and take a serious stab at my extended essay. We’ll see.
My month in England was exactly what I needed, but I’m very happy to have hopped back onto the year abroad train. (Quite literally: I came to Lyon on the Eurostar). Très bien.