Sunday, May 24, 2015

BREATHALYZERS AND OTHER CURIOUS ITEMS LEGALLY REQUIRED WHILE DRIVING IN FRANCE

A bowl at the Château St Estève de Neri tasting room filled with breathalyzers for their guests.  Photo: Susan Manfull
With a trip to Provence on the horizon, I looked into the status of the legal requirement to carry  breathalyzers in one’s car. The answer, as I write this post, is that at least one is required. However, don't hold your breath, things could change by August.  Such is nature of this law and, to some extent, many of the laws pertaining to driving while in France.

While researching the status of the on-again, off-again breathalyzer requirement, a story I have kept an eye on since it first surfaced back in March 2011, I discovered a very informative website, all about driving in France. There, on Drive-France.com, Dave Griffiths of Redditch, England—who apparently crosses the Channel frequently or is just simply fascinated by the bizarre nature of French motor vehicle law—details the equipment and, for lack of better words, "stuff" that people who choose to drive in France are responsible for stowing in their cars.  Oh, and I hasten to add: it matters where in the car, you store these items. Mais oui. It's France.

To purchase more sophisticated breathalyzers, visit: http://www.breathalyserstore.co.uk/ 


Since I (moi) will be driving much of time while in la belle Provence, I wanted to make certain I would not stray from the straight and narrow roads of French law. I’ve had only one encounter with gendarmes while driving—or rather while parked—in France and, because my French-speaking husband returned to the car before my charm wore thin, the matter was amicably resolved.

For those who are curious, I was parked illegally in the center of Avignon, a centreville where the streets are narrow and devoid of anything resembling a legitimate parking place.  My husband had popped out to pick up concert tickets we had already purchased, a quick transaction we assumed. The officers were smiling when they asked me to move the car, but something was clearly lost in translation as I spoke, probably because the thought never occurred to them that I didn’t know how to put the car I was driving into reverse. Just as our conversation was about to take a different course, my husband returned from his "quick" errand and confirmed that it was indeed true that I hadn’t mastered reverse in this rental car.

Beyond the typical requirements for operating a rental car found in other countries—for example, to carry one’s driver’s license, passport, and the rental agreement (or proof of ownership)—there are other paraphernalia  you might never have considered stowing in the car. Some of the items make sense and may keep you safer; other items defy logic.

Public service ad featuring fashion icon Karl Lagerfeld -
"It's yellow, it's ugly, it doesn't go with anything, but it may save your life."

The reflective triangle is a good idea. If your car has broken down, it is required that you place a warning triangle on the road, or on the shoulder, behind the car.  If you don’t have one, the fine can be as high as €135. (I have always found this item in our rental cars.)

The high visibility vests—you know the fluorescent yellowish-green ones with prominently placed reflector strips—also make sense. Until you read the details. There must be one for the driver and every passenger and they must be stored in the car. (That is, not in the trunk.) Mr. Griffiths had me laughing out loud as he described the hapless driver digging through beach balls and suitcases in the trunk to find the vests that should have been in the car, when the gendarmes pull up. As Mr. Griffiths also points out, even if they are lawfully stowed in the passenger area of the car, most people would probably put the vests on outside the car, in which case, he wonders if the driver is still liable for the fine, upwards of €135. And, is the fine levied per general infraction or per person donning the vest outside the car?  (The last time I checked a rental car, the singular vest was in the trunk.)

Then there are the requisite spare bulbs, a completely impractical requirement since many headlights nowadays require professional installation. That’s a (maximum) €80 fine. (I have never noticed these in my rental cars but that's not to say they are not there...I promise to get back to you on this subject.)


If you wear eyeglasses, you are required to carry an extra pair with you, while driving in France. A good idea but it hardly seems necessary to elevate this commonsense to law.

Saving the best for last, the breathalyzer requirement, Mr. Griffiths discusses the history of this law, including its unorthodox impetus. The law was initiated, not on account of pressure from some safety-conscious group like the French equivalent of M.A.D.D. (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) but, rather, due to the lobbying efforts of a group called “I-Care” which was spearheaded by the director of one of two companies that manufactured the breathalyzers. Passing this law created a huge captive customer base. Furthermore, drivers were advised to carry two breathalyzers to ensure that there would be one unused one in the event that, mon dieu, the driver was pulled over by the gendarmes just after using his or her breathalyzer, in good faith, to make sure that he or should was legally able to drive.  In fact, the demand was too great to meet and the date by which the breathalyzers would be required was postponed again and again.

According to Mr. Griffiths, in May 2012, when President Sarkozy (who had signed the law into effect) lost the election, the breathalyzer law was relegated to a dormant status, meaning that it is still on the books but that it carries no fine if one is caught without one.

"Visit the Rhône Valley wineries in total security!" Photo by Susan Manfull


The crazy part of this whole ordeal, Mr. Griffiths writes, is that people are still buying them to the tune of as much as €20 a packet. Even when there was a proposed fine (never put in place), it was only €11. Mr. Griffiths, who sells the breathalyzers, advises folks not to buy them. But, they still do, he says. (I've never seen one in my rental cars.)

To make matters even more confounding to the rational person, the breathalyzers do not hold up under extreme temperatures. Already fairly unreliable under optimal circumstances, in the heat of a typical summer day in Provence, they simply don’t work.

What seemed like a good idea for drivers and all people on or near the roads in France, was really only a good idea for the manufacturers of breathalyzers. The best advice is simply not to drink and drive.

So, there you have it. If you will be driving in France, make sure that the aforementioned equipment is stowed in your car (in its proper place) and that  the required documents (and extra eyeglasses, if necessary) are in your possession. Consult Mr. Griffiths’ highly informative and entertaining website for other details, including legal alcohol level (.05% in general and .02% for novice drivers), mobile phone usage (strictly prohibited even with headphones although Bluetooth setups are legal), and seat belt usage (mandatory for all occupants).

Aside from required stuff in the car while driving in France, my biggest concern is the motorcycles that weave in and out of cars and travel between lanes, a frequent practice of cyclists and one that, incidentally, is illegal. If you will be driving a motorcycle in France, brush up on what you are legally required to carry. Breathalyzers are required equipment, as are high visibility jackets although, as of January 2013, they no longer need to be worn at all times. Reflective triangles are not required.

Check Mr. Griffiths' site before hitting the road in France, no matter what you are driving. Are breathalyzers required gear on tractors?

On the way to the cooperative in Cucuron. Photo: W.T. Manfull



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Sunday, May 10, 2015

THINGS TO KNOW IN PROVENCE: WHAT IS L’APÉRO?

Photo by W.T. Manfull

Recently, I told a group of people we are meeting in Provence that “It all begins Sunday evening with l’apéro,” prompting many of those people to sheepishly inquire exactly how Sunday evening would commence.

What is l’apéro?

It is a derivative of the Latin word aperire, which means “to open,” and refers to opening the palate for a later meal. It’s the beverage—called an apéritif—that is served to whet the appetite, but its full meaning encompasses the whole social occasion in which this imbibing takes place. It’s the drink—always accompanied by a little bite to eat—and the convivial experience of getting together with others, making conversation, unwinding, and transitioning from the end of the day to the beginning of the evening (although in many restaurants, you may be offered an apéritif before lunch).

The typical aperitif has less than half as much alcohol as the average American cocktail.
In the South of France, it is so commonplace that it is like a ritual. I suppose it is like the American cocktail hour, but the American version seems more focused on the alcohol than the social experience (although maybe it’s just the way it typically manifests itself with my family and friends). And, in France, the apéritif is more bitter than sweet (don’t expect Piňa Coladas on the menu).

Photo by W.T. Manfull
If you are invited to someone’s home for l’apéro, it is important to understand that the hosts will expect you to enjoy your drink along with a small bowl of olives, nuts, or even potato chips, make some conversation, and be on your way in less than an hour. There is typically just a couple of drinks.

It’s a wonderful tradition, a great way to connect with friends, family, or colleagues at home and yet it is such a casual rendezvous that doesn’t entail a lot of work on the part of the hosts. In Provence, in the summer, folks may gather around a tiny table, sans table cloth, in a corner of the garden with only a bowl of pistachios for sustenance (shells to fall on the ground).

Photo by W.T. Manfull
Or, a cloth-covered table may be adorned with what appear to be more elaborate nibbles like tapenade d’olive, caviar d'aubergine, chêvre, pâté, or saucissons, along with toasts. But, even this presentation doesn’t require much preparation…you know those market stands with stacks of small jars of various spreads? Now you understand why they are so popular!

Wherever it falls on the continuum of possibilities the host keeps it simple and, if you haven’t been invited for dinner, the guests follow the rules—nibble, imbibe, be in the moment, and then be on your way!

L’apéro doesn’t have to happen at home. I’ve enjoyed many an aperitif at Café Gaby in Lourmarin, always accompanied by a tiny bowl of salted nuts. (No charge—it’s part of the custom and expected.) Friends come, join in the camaraderie, and then depart for home, a nearby restaurant, or wherever the evening takes them.

L’apéro is also the prelude to dinner in a restaurant and if you are traveling, this is probably the most likely venue for you to partake in this tradition.

“Désirez-vous un apéritif,” the waiter will ask. And how will you reply?

Photo by Pamela O'Neill
Ordering rosé or sparkling wine would be an easy way to quickly rectify that deer-in-the-headlight look you may be project if caught unaware. A variation on that theme, Kir, a white wine with a splash of crème de cassis (a rather syrupy liqueur made from black currants), is a popular response or, a step up, Kir Royale, made with champagne rather than still wine. But, it is much more fun to order something more interesting and, besides, David Lebovitz reports that the Kirs are passé.

Most apéritif are wine-based and laden with secret mixtures of herbs, spices, and citrus peels. In many cases, the closely guarded recipes have remained the same since their creation, a couple of centuries ago.

Take vermouth, for example. It is the main ingredient in today’s dry Martini and part of the Manhattan and Negroni, and it is one of the first apéritif. The recipe and production are said to be the same since its inception in the 1700s. It is basically a mixture of wine, neutral alcohol, liqueurs, lots of herbs and spices that is aged in a combination of oak vats and oak barrels.

There are basically two types of vermouth: sweet and dry, also known as red and white (although vermouth is now made from rosé, too). The former was created in Italy where the two most widely known brands are Martini and Cinzano, and the latter in France where Noilly-Prat dominates the market.
The name vermouth comes from the German word for wormwood (Wermut), originally an ingredient in vermouth and absinthe.

It was just outside of Provence, on the Mediterranean coast near Montpellier, that Joseph Noilly, an herbalist, created the dry, white vermouth and later, when his brother-in-law, Claudius Prat, began working with him, the company was formally christened Noilly-Prat.

Order vermouth straight up and chilled or on the rocks.

Photo by W.T. Manfull

Saint Raphaël, Dubonnet and Lillet are wine based—Lillet is a fortified wine aged in oak barrels—with the addition of quinine, added initially to help troops in North Africa keep malaria at bay. In fact, it was the bitter taste of quinine that was the impetus for the development of these drinks. Later, presumably to attract a larger market (outside of regions with malaria), these drinks were advertised simply as beneficial to health.

Order these elixirs straight up and chilled or on the rocks, perhaps with a twist of lemon or orange.

In Provence, one of the most popular apéritif is certainly Pastis. It is an anise-based drink laced with the essence of the region’s famous garrigue—wild lavender, thyme, rosemary—that has macerated in alcohol. A healthy inch is served in a glass, accompanied by a small pitcher of ice water. When the water is poured into the glass, a cloudy green liquid emerges (reminiscent of a high school science experiment) that, in spite of its appearance, is very tasty.

People say that it is an acquired taste—I acquired it immediately—and, come summer, it is one of my favorite drinks. Like its predecessor absinthe—the Fée Verte or green fairy—it is pretty potent.

Photo by W.T. Manfull

Absinthe, as you no doubt know, was the preferred drink of artists and other creative-types in the 19th century until it was outlawed in France in 1915. If you believe the literature from that period, everyone was addicted to it and it was the culprit of all of the failings of humanity in the 1800s (at least those manifested in the French). Until recently, it was thought to play a role in van Gogh’s outburst with Gauguin that ended in him slicing off part of his ear. Wormwood—more specifically thujone, a component of wormwood—was thought to be the cause of the degenerative effects, but it’s now agreed that while thujone may have some hallucinogenic properties, it is impossible to ingest enough to cause such effects. It’s a long story—see an earlier TMT article—but it is legal again, as of about 25 years ago, so you can order absinthe and be confident you won’t see any whirling green fairies. Darn. 

Order pastis or absinthe and the waiter will bring a glass filled with a little of the drink with a carafe of ice water so that you can add the amount of water you prefer, generally with a proportion not exceeding 1 part liquor to 5 parts water. When pastis or absinthe is served in its glory, with all its accoutrements, one would be served a ceramic pitcher of ice-cold water, a small bowl of ice-cubes, a saucer of sugar cubes, and, to the uninitiated, a curious perforated flat spoon. Arrange the spoon atop the glass, add a sugar cube or two, and pour the water over it (to sweeten its bitterness). Definitely use the sugar for absinthe and, caveat emptor, absinthe is an acquired taste!

Photo by W.T. Manfull
All parts of France produce regional apéritif. In Provence, look for Orange Colombo, Noix de la Saint Jean, RinQuinQuin, and Gentiane de Lure, all produced in Forcalquier. Each can be enjoyed chilled before dinner (and in other ways such as in cocktails or with dessert or fruit!).

You prefer your apéritif without alcohol? Pas de problème. Ask for un jus d’orange (freshly squeezed orange juice) or un citron pressé (freshly squeezed lemon juice to which you add water and sugar). And then there is always l’eau gazeuse (sparkling water).

So, now you know how that Sunday evening in Provence will begin and you have a few responses for the waiter when he asks, “Désirez-vous un apéritif.” So, what will it be?




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Sunday, February 22, 2015

FRENCH LESSONS HAVE TAUGHT ME MORE
THAN FRENCH

Photo by WT Manfull

French Lessons. There they are again on my list of goals for 2015. I shudder to think how many years “French Lessons” have hovered near the top of my annual list of aspirations deemed important in moving toward personal-fulfillment or, from a practical standpoint in the case of French, to making travel in Provence a lot easier. Right up there with writing, reading novels, travel, wine, squash, and running, all areas of my life in which I hope to make progress. (I finally dropped piano playing.)

At sixty, I no longer harbor illusions of speaking fluent French. My ambitions are greatly reduced. At this point in my life, if I could expand my comfort zone to include more tenses than le présent de l’indicatif  and passé composé, I would feel I had accomplished something significant. The roller coaster ride on the way to fluent French has not been in vain, though. I’ve learned other lessons, many of which transcend learning any foreign language and have undoubtedly propelled me closer to who I’d like to be than conjugating 14 tenses of French would ever have done for me.

I’ve mastered the fine art of laughing at myself, cultivated greater patience and even more empathy (already in abundance people would say), and, most importantly, accepted that success is measured in many ways.

When learning a language, one has to have a sense of humor and a strong sense of self that is well insulated and wrapped in thick skin. Because, as only those of you who strive to acquire another language can fully appreciate, the experience is famously riddled with opportunities for everything to go awry, leaving the speaker standing painfully naked before the listener. There are French words that will never pass my lips again for fear of such exposure.

At the top of that list of French words to avoid at all costs is cou (speaking of feeling naked). I was forewarned by my French teacher to tread carefully—and with pursed lips—when introducing cou, the French word for neck, into friendly conversation. Feeling uncharacteristically confident one morning in the pharmacy in Lourmarin, I neglected to heed this sage piece of advice. After a futile attempt to recall gorge to describe my daughter’s sore throat to the pharmacist, I thought of cou for a reasonable substitute. Cou, predictably, failed to emerge properly from my mis-shaped American lips and much to my daughter’s chagrin, out came cul, a somewhat vulgar term for the other end of the torso.

Even the slightest mispronunciation can wreak havoc when speaking French. Asking someone to répétez takes on a completely different meaning when the first ‘e’ is not accented. Instead of requesting that something you’ve not heard be repeated, you could easily find yourself asking the person with whom you are having a nice conversation to pass gas again if you inadvertently substitute "repétez."

Slightly less embarrassing, I once told a store owner that I was looking for a crevette for a gift for my nephew rather than a cravate. That is to say, a shrimp rather than a necktie. My husband hastens to remind me that I have, on more than one occasion, introduced him, not as a “mon mari,” my husband, but as “ma mairie,” my town hall, or “ma mère,” my mother. Now, I just don’t introduce him.

Even our beagle has had to suffer through my attempts at speaking French. One November day, a handsome French man who was purchasing vegetables next to me in the Cucuron market, struck up a conversation with me. To be accurate, it was with our beagle, but, in any case, as he stroked her nose, he told her that it was the height of sanglier hunting season and that a dog with a nose as sensitive as hers could be very happy if she were out hunting wild boar in the Luberon. I replied, on her behalf, that indeed she does dream of being “a shoe.” When the man looked perplexed, I knew I had said “une chaussure” instead of “une chasseuse,” a hunter. It’s so hard to speak French.

A strong sense of self also enables one to more readily shed roles of authority when they require a command of the French language. The task of reporting our stolen car to the local gendarmes fell on the shoulders of our 11-year-old daughter, whose malleable brain had managed to absorb more French in a couple of months than I had in the previous six years. She took her temporary role in stride, probably even deriving some secret prepubescent pleasure from thinking she rather than her mother was in charge.

Learning to be patient while keeping a smile on one’s face also comes with the territory of learning a foreign language. Sometimes the avalanche of French conversation seems interminable but eventually it will come to a halt if for no other reason than a breath is necessary. At that point, someone--usually my husband—can surface with an English translation. Then, I know whether I should retain the smile pasted on my face or switch to another expression better suited to the contents of the discourse, about which, at least in the early days of French Lessons, I was known to have completely misunderstood. (Even today, years into these lessons, I am often bowled over by how one tiny error in translation on top of another can take one in a direction completely unrelated to the subject at hand.)

Friends and family, upon hearing these stories, marvel at the thickness of my skin and the perseverance with which I have pursued my goal of learning French. So most were not surprised when I announced my intention to enroll in a French language immersion course in the South of France.

Photo by Pamela O'Neill

After some research, I selected CREA-Langues, a school near the 5th-century village of Moustiers-Sainte-Mairie in the Haute-Alpes department of Provence, about 100 kilometers (about 60 miles)  from Lourmarin, where our family likes to hang our hats. This segment of my French Lessons was ten years ago now, but it remains as vivid today as when I lived through it.

The 19th-century Monastère de Segries, home to the language school where I would be for seven days, was just six kilometers past Moustiers. As I approached the village, I suddenly remembered that, when I visited this area two years earlier, my cell phone could not pick up a signal. Panic set in when a furtive glance at my cell phone confirmed my fear. How would I make it through the week without a covert conversation in English?

Driving on, I saw a pair of towering gates. Forbidding as they appeared, I soldiered on and found lovely grounds, filled with oak, plane, and cypress trees, comfortably manicured gardens, and splashes of spring colors everywhere. The spacious grounds were divided into several courtyards, providing a cozy feel. A few students had already arrived whom teachers and other staff appeared to be greeting and accompanying to their respective rooms.

I was shown to my room by Florence, the pastry chef, who smiled warmly but gave no hint that she would be able to conjure up a single English sentence should the need arise. I would have a roommate and, never having had one before, I wondered what protocol was in determining which bed to take. The first one had slightly more privacy, but was a single. The second one was a double bed, but was devoid of any privacy and down a very long flight of stairs. It was closest to the bathroom, though I wasn’t sure whether this was a pro or a con. I would wait to discuss this with my roommate (in French, bien sȗr).

Photo by Pamela O'Neill

In the meantime, I freshened up, reviewed my “meeting others” notes, took a deep breath, and made my way out to meet my classmates. Lubricated with apéritifs of pastis and kir, the crowd bandied French around the courtyard with varying degrees of finesse and with unmistakably different accents representing nine different countries.

There was Jan, a Dutch man with a confident French who was attending for the fourth time. He likes to vacation in France and to read French literature. His French intimidated me, so I was relieved to meet Ludwig, one of three men from Germany, who I later found out, was relieved to meet me for the same reason. Ludwig wanted to learn French because he had just purchased a house in Provence. Hans, a retired BMW test driver, was there to refine this French because he wanted to purchase a house in Provence. Wolfgang, whose thick German accent initially hid his many years of studying French, was enrolled in the course for reasons I was never able to decipher. Aline, from the Netherlands, and her son Mario from Belgium, both chatted freely in French with well-practiced gesticulations and seemed to have signed up for this immersion course like others sign up for cruises. Isobel, from Scotland, quiet but moving in and out of tenses and other languages with acrobatic ease, was there to accelerate her learning for the sake of learning (if I understood her correctly). Brian, a retired architect of British decent who lived in New York and wanted to travel more in Provence, carried on a lively conversation with another English man, Michael, a pulmonary physician who owned a house in France. It was a colorful group, spanning at least 40 years, all united in a common passion for the French language.

Eventually, we moved to the long table that, for the next six evenings, would be filled with 17 students, four instructors, and several administrative sorts. The wine was flowing as freely as the convivial conversations around me. As it was all in French, I tried to keep the subject on food—the area in which I had the largest French vocabulary—while conversing with those around me.

“J’adore les aubergines.” “Est-ce que vous voulez encore du vin?” “C’était très bon.”

Fortunately, food was the talk of the table on its own merits, without any help from me, so I was able to postpone the inevitable conclusions of my dinner companions that my knowledge of French didn’t extend much beyond the mousse au chocolat.

I met more classmates as the evening progressed, including my camarade-de-chambre, Marita, a young biologist from Finland who lived in Belgium and already seemed to have a great command of French. I was hopelessly inadequate in conveying my lack of preference for a particular bed, especially without a bed to which I could point, and equally as poor in comprehending her feelings on the subject. Somehow, later, we ended up in separate beds.

By the time coffee and tea were served that first evening, I felt myself sinking under the weight of my apprehension about what was to unfold during the remaining days. I could hardly wait for sleep to lift me out of my worries of impending mortification, at least for a few hours. Nearly everyone spoke much better French than I did.

My alarm sounded the next morning, long before I was fully restored. After the universal French petit déjeuner of sliced breads with butter, jams, and honey—uninspired but, mercifully, everything on the table was in my vocabulary—I walked over to the Grand Salon. There, at 9:00, we were to rendez-vous to be tested in order to establish four groups, each comprising folks with a similar level of French language ability. Would there be a group for me or would I be such an outlier that private tutoring would be necessary? Or worse, would I be tucked in a corner, tethered to a computer watching an online course?

I found a spot on a couch between Ludwig and Mario and began my journey deeper into the French language, but also into myself. Would my self-deprecating sense of humor and thick skin be enough to protect my self-esteem? How would I let my classmates know that I am more than my French allows me to communicate? Without my native language to convey who I am, I was left with just me.





Our first assignment required pairing up with a classmate whom we would interview and introduce to the entire group. As fate would have it, I was paired with Jan, the most advanced speaker in the group, now on his fourth round at this particular language school. (I would learn shortly that there were other language schools.) My face flushed and my heart raced. Learning French is a roller coaster ride, I reminded myself, the angst is followed by exhilaration. (I tried to repress the knowledge I had only ever ridden the old wooden roller coasters.)

The interview with Jan was a total of 15 painful minutes, during which time I tried without success to move beyond basic introductory phrases, but I had nowhere to go after establishing his marital status, the number of offspring he produced, where he lived, and, as I wrote above, his history of French language courses. Jan was no help. My reservoir of French words and phrases, by the middle of our interview, was completely enveloped in anxiety. I found myself madly scribbling down what little information I elicited from him in a highly idiosyncratic hybrid of phonetic French and English that probably led Jan to think that not only was I unable to speak French, I was also illiterate.

Time finally rescued me from this tortuous task, but the reprieve was brief as I slunk into my place on the couch between Ludwig and Mario only to be called on first. “Always try to go first while your audience is fresh,” advice from my mother flitted through my mind but the last thing I wanted that morning was a fresh audience. All eyes turned to me, so with belt buckled and bar lowered, I began. French words actually came out of my mouth and I was off. The vocabulary wasn’t impressive and Jan’s life was pretty much stuck in the present, but the nods from fellow students were supportive and the teachers’ smiles were reinforcing. I surprised myself that I passed on a fair amount of information about Jan and that my accent had not completely betrayed me.

I endured the written test next. It was four pages long, chock-full of “conjugaisons, grammaire, et mots.” Moans, groans, and occasional chuckles were audible throughout the room. Was it masculine or feminine? Passé composé or imparfait de l’indicatif? Être or avoir? I finally finished, extracting full confidence from only question, relating to food. What beverage would someone likely order from a café at breakfast, thankfully, “un grand crème,” long my standard order at our local café, was the only feasible answer.

A brief interview completely the class assignment process. What were my goals? Having witnessed my spoken French and reviewed my test, it would be apparent that any number of goals would match my vast needs.

I assured the teacher that I suffered from no delusions of great linguistic proficiency nor from false hopes of achieving such proficiency in the next six days. I refrained from offering to switch to cooking classes and, in reasonably good French, I proceeded to explain that my goals were modest: I wanted to break out of present tense and move beyond the first-person, singular conjugation. I would probably never fully appreciate the nuances separating the use of passé composé from imparfait de l’indicatif. Any movement forward would bring satisfaction, I told him, and he seemed relieved. Strangely so did I. Sometimes moving in the right direction, however slowly, is as good as it gets.


My class at CREA-Langues
I am often reminded of those French Lessons in Moustiers. I significantly advanced in my French, but I learned much more than just French in that week, as I have ever since embarking on my study of French many years ago.

Jan, the best French speaker in our group of students that spring in Moustiers, spent the rest of the class finding humor in my French until one of the teachers, fearful that Jan’s jabs might penetrate my thick skin, took me aside and told me that Jan may have a much better vocabulary—and he probably can conjugate 14 tenses—but he’ll never have the accent your French teacher ingrained in you nor will he have, the teacher hesitantly added, a crowd of classmates vying to sit next to him at the dinner table.

That conversation made me feel good but what really warmed my heart was knowing that my feelings of success were not measured in a contest with Jan. As I review my cryptically recorded 2015 aspirations—that aren’t much different from last year’s or any of the previous years—I need no reminding that success is measured in many ways and what nourishes one to move successfully toward personal fulfillment, feeling relevant, or just plain “okay” comes from the darnedest places sometimes.

I’m buckled in, ready for this year’s French Lessons. On y va!

The grounds at CREA-Langues.  Photo by Susan Manfull



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