In the middle of winter, in the gloomy aftermath of a dank Aro Valley afternoon, we decide to learn French. It will get us through the wet sock months, the dog-eared weeks till exams. It will get us through yet another dinner of the lentils my flatmate relentlessly bought in bulk because they were a vegetarian household’s bargain. As the credits roll after a Jean Luc Godard documentary, we plan our escape to a place where the mellow air smells of coffee, and the people laugh as they come and go from patisseries. We like pastry, we like coffee, my boyfriend Sam and I, and we need a plan to survive an interminable August.
Our laziness, or our pennilessness, or both, leads us to the City Library and the Collins Language Survival Guide with accompanying CD. Learn French in Fifteen Minutes a Day it promises. ‘Food – Phrases – Practical Know-How’; it features a stylised Eiffel Tower on the cover. Already the venture seems less glamorous, but after a dinner of croutons on our lentils we sit down to be taught by the CD.
Jean-Pierre and Monique introduce themselves. Bonjour, and je m'appelle Monique they say, Je suis Jean-Pierre, and we dutifully parrot back enchanté and comment t'appelles-tu? to each other. The words don’t seem to fit quite right in my mouth; some of the sounds feel like I’m trying to eat a hard bread roll and clear my throat at the same time. By the time we get to ordering food with Jean-Pierre and Monique we are helpless with laughter, and the fifteen minutes has been and gone.
The next night we try harder, sit down seriously with a pencil and paper. I have told myself I’ll probably be reading Simone de Beauvoir un-translated by the end of winter, even Colette. I am reading a new biography of Nancy Mitford, one of literature’s more committed Francophiles. I am also reading (this I am less eager to share) a Jean Plaidy called Eleanor of Aquitaine, about the French court in the 12th century. We are drinking a thin and nasty pinot noir, we are trying.
None of this makes us any better at learning French. Oui, we nod sagely to each other; quoi, quand, pourquoi. It’s Parlez-vous anglais? that breaks us. The expression of sheer despair on Sam’s face as he addresses France at large, or maybe just Monique, cuts me up completely, and he is undone by my repeated demands for another bread roll please, another bread roll please. That night I wake to his sleep-mumbled Un pain, un pain s’il vous plaÎt and I go from dream to hysterical laughter faster than I thought possible.
We persevere. At worst it’s a novel form of study procrastination, at best we walk away with a phrase which lasts the next day or two and makes for increasingly bad in-jokes. Monique and Jean-Pierre’s voices seem to become progressively more censorious as we batter our way through verbs and phrases. Meanwhile, behind their backs, we begin to make them into characters which inhabit the rest of our lives.
We know that Monique works in a deli, where she takes pleasure in frowning at overweight customers who order the sweet yellow quince tarts with cream. Jean-Pierre is a bank teller, and he likes pressing his fingers into the inkpad before shaking a customer’s hand, and practicing stamping the stamps down hard and accurate afterhours when everyone else has gone home. When someone swerves into Sam’s path as he bikes down the street he will shout ‘Jean-Pierre, you bastard!’, and when I find all the new silverbeet seedlings laced with slug holes I curse Monique’s weird hole-punch fetish. It’s not a wonder they hate us each night, and keep presenting more and more impossible words for us to gargle and choke over.
Our friends think we are being funny, that we are not really trying hard, and they don’t believe that Monique gave us this winter’s undying dry cough. (We christen it ‘hay-throat’ – la gorge des foins – and our eyes stream with fury as we hack and rasp.) They laugh as if Jean-Pierre’s habit of marking his page with a sucked teabag, and Monique’s collection of dead lightbulbs (she likes to hold them to her ear and hear the broken filaments rattle forlornly inside), their shared fondness for walking slowly along the footpath together just wide enough apart so that no one behind can pass, are just dinner party stories, and not particularly good ones at that.
We go out less, spend more time sitting on the floor by the heater with the CD on. My head is mostly propped against Sam’s leg, and there are cracker crumbs in my hair when I get up to put the jug on. We watch the steam gently rising from the washing on the clothes horse; we are not really listening, just thinking of more reasons to hate Monique and Jean-Pierre. It takes a lot of our time.
Other people have other ways of coping with winter. My best friend Kate gets pregnant; Joel gets a poem published in Landfall; Lauren makes bread and tries the Feldenkrais Method and stops eating animal proteins. Sometimes we all go to classes. On the way home, the Four Square man tells us a cold front is coming in, in time for the film festival, and that we should try the new liquorice straps. The Festival does provide Sam and I with some distraction, though at one film we sit behind Monique, who crunches Jaffas and stage whispers to her friend throughout, and we are beaten to the last ticket for After the Wedding by Jean-Pierre, who jumps the queue and stands on Sam’s foot as he passes.
Three weeks in, they introduce Benedict, and then Cecile and Francoise. They have numbers on their side now, and we begin to catalogue their private lives and personal failings in earnest. Predictably, Benedict and Francoise are Gemini, fickle and petty. They talk back to the news, ill-informed and foul mouthed. They are shameless flirts, smoke affectedly and inside, they use the last of the milk and put the bottle back in the fridge. One day I read in the Dominion Post that Francoise Sagan, at sixteen one of my favourite authors, and still dear, has died at the age of 69. I know that the simpering and catty Francoise from our CD has stolen her soul and is probably parading round in it, celebrity-fetishish that she is. I resent it because I love Sagan, and because I must now hate the fact that she is French, and more when I read that she borrowed her own name from Marcel Proust’s Princesse de Sagan.
Cecile is more subtly vindictive. She keeps a collection of dead potplants, and sometimes leaves the printer deliberately jammed. She is the girl who tells your ex-boyfriend he was long-suffering, and looks smilingly at you out the rain-fogged bus window as it sails past your stop. She has a face like the Queen of Diamonds, two-dimensional and cruel, she sucks mints constantly and never offers them around. We suspect that she and Jean-Pierre once conducted a liaison amoureuse, but perhaps they were too self-absorbed and fastidious to ever go further than sharing a mutual dislike for children, and wincing at the same time over cheap wine at a book launch. We go to sleep with the CD on, and I dream I am sailing on the heater through the Arc de Triumph.
I wake embarrassed. I actually did a year of French at highschool, my mother majored in French at University. My dad speaks Quebec French, and when asked describes to us poutine (beef gravy on French fries with cheese curds) and doughboys. I at least should be passable, but we are both worse than poor, we are actually incomprehensible, and it’s not helped by the fact that almost every French word seems to make us laugh. I don’t think Sam has the cheeks for French, and when I tell him so he says I always sound like have bon bons in mine when I talk. It doesn’t get nasty, because we are both about as bad as possible, and we are laughing. We start to develop our own language, a messy blend of butchered French, Sam’s mother’s Irish accent, and expressions from my Canadian dad.
Things come to a head with the library fine: we have had Learn French in Fifteen Minutes a Day out for two and a half months, accruing a staggering fine of $44.80. We have had a lot of 15 minutes, and we do not know any French. It looks unlikely we ever will. But by this time it’s late September; we are at the end of the lentils and there are Kowhai trees blazing all down Aro Road. Très bon, we say to each other, mouths full of Arobake’s best. It’s about all we can say, but enough for now.