French Lessons

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

I think my shoes are somewhere in those bushes.

So when I was eleven we moved to Barbados. There, my mother worked with a lady from Martinique whose niece was my age and they thought it would be rather nice for us to have exchange visits to expand our linguistic and cultural knowledge.

Claudine was instructed to write to me and introduce herself. She wrote that her mother was a housewife and her father a labourer. The Northern Socialist was delighted. My mother less so. She packed lots of old shorts and t-shirts in case I was needed on the land. She put some food in, too.

Claudine and her mother met me at the airport. Claudine was lanky, silent and pale. Her mother was charming - blade-thin and chainsmoking as she led me to their huge Mercedes. We drove into the hills of the island and turned off down a densely-wooded track. Mme LeChef explained very slowly that this was an avocado, sugar cane and banana plantation. She pointed out a series of small mud huts, 'tomorrrrrow, yes, in ze morning, zat iz where bread comes.' I offered to fetch it, as that is what the French kids in my textbook did. I don't think she heard me. Claudine didn't say a word. We drove for forty minutes through the plantation. I worried that I would get lost fetching the bread, and wasn't sure I was ready to live in a mud hut for a week.

The car drew up outside a Great Big House. I was taken inside and introduced to a lady they told me would be my 'Bonne.' Good at what, I wondered? It transpired - unpacking my pathetic clothes, running my bath, splashing cologne on my arms and cheeks, brushing my hair. The LeChefs owned this massive plantation, and I had been briefed to expect a week on a kibbutz. My bedroom at home had curling posters of Scott Baio; Claudine's was lined in charcoal sketches of ruffled old-fashioned children and oil paintings of castles.

I had stepped back into another age. The family, I understood much later, had owned the plantations for centuries and during the French Revolution, had fled France to avoid the guillotine, being about as far from the solid proletarian stock of my father's dreams as you could get. The house was enormous, with wide verandahs on three sides where we had breakfast and drinks before dinner. It had no kitchen, but instead three huts nearby housed fire and range and ice-boxes. I don't think I have ever eaten as well as I did there, nor seen so many servants. One behind each chair at dinner, another tucked me into bed, yet another brought me a tiny cup of ambrosial chocolat before I went to sleep.

Over the next few days, the house filled up, thank God, because Claudine and I, we discovered, couldn't stand the sight of each other. Claudine's two older brothers arrived from school in France and a French Count and his companion came to stay. The Count was 19 and the ugliest man I had ever seen. His companion was a dream. They both thought I was hysterical, stuffed crossly into Claudine's frock for dinner and running barefoot in the day. The Count's face was horribly scarred - his father had wolves which had attacked him as a child and they had done a skin graft from his thigh which left him very disfigured. He was very kind though, and used to make a point of kissing my hot little hand whenever we met.

My favourite thing, though, was the two brothers. 14 and 15, they had the best toys - motorbikes, speedboats, waterskis. They told me in no uncertain terms that I could go along with them only if I spoke French. They were even more crap at English than their mother. I learned French in about two days, along with how to lean on an uphill winding motorbike ride. Barefoot. How to waterski. How to swear in French. Really badly. I taught them bad words in return; anything to avoid having to spend time with Claudine. I never told my parents that bit. She, by contrast, stayed in her room putting on lipstick and changing her clothes.

Another time, I spent an afternoon in Fort-de-France with her ancient Grandmother, who made me translate a whole boxful of old letters she and her own mother had been exchanging with the British Royal Family for decades, trying to get their help in having their French chateau and property returned to them. The letters smelled old and some had crumbled away in their envelopes. She gave me tea. I wore shoes for that visit. I wrote a letter in English to some equerry or other in London asking again for the Queen's help in returning their lands. I didn't tell my dad about that, either.


  1. And we had to wait until the 6th paragraph for the part about the wolves? There are just so many layers here of oh you have got to be kidding oh my god you are not kidding ok can you fly here and tell me some more stories?

  2. OMG, too fab-u-lous. We gotta get this thing moving along. The world suffers. I just know it.

  3. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post - you have lived quite the life! That would have been quite the adventure for an 11-year-old, or any age for that matter!

  4. LPC - I believe it is rather warmer where you are - I'm on a plane! Wolves took a rather hilarious time for me to get to too as my vocab was rather limited, so there was much miming and growling til I understood. Still, the utter romance of it though - wolves!!
    Tish - xx
    JMW - my daughter was 11 recently - I get panicky when she goes to the post office. Hpw times have changed, eh? Yes, an unconventional life..

  5. the adventures of-How will your 11 year old keep the traditions alive? very very very diverting! la

  6. Fabulous - this story brightened my day, gave it some much needed color! I only follow two blogs on a regular basis - yours and Maxminimus; best of the blogosphere in two hits.

  7. Gail, in northern Californa17 November 2009 at 21:52

    Another gem.
    You had me laughing out loud when you volunteered to fetch the home baked bread.
    Your description of Claudine languishing in her room putting on lipstick and changing clothes was priceless. Having grown up with seven brothers, I would have preferred her brothers' company too. I'll bet you gave them a run for their money.

  8. And then the next year you had to go back and do it all again with your weeping little sister!!

  9. The perfect way to learn another language. I do SO enjoy living vicariously - longing to know more...

  10. Charmante histoire! I laughed to read you describe Mme LeChef as charming, blade-thin, and chainsmoking. Ah...les femmes françaises!

  11. If only my summer vacations could have been so nice. As usual great post can't wait for the next.

  12. It is warmer here. Even when it's our version of cold...

  13. la - she can have adventures, with her mama in annoying attendance.
    Anon - how very kind - there are some other belters out there too - must update my list
    Gail - exactly! lipstick versus speedboat - no contest
    Darling Tante, has to be said, it did somewhat cramp my style with the Little Sobber in attendance, pretty or not...
    Tattie, certainly at my age vicarious is the only option!
    KLS - yup, and I still ask myself what she'd do when I'm stuck - her sangfroid was legendary
    Brian - hello and thank you.


Please leave a comment if you can be remotely bothered - anything you have to say is valuable and I absolutely love hearing from you all. Elizabeth