What am I doing here?
… My journey to France started with a fascination for words, any word in any language. From an early age I would read instructions or ingredients on packets in foreign languages and try to work out what they meant.
I have a vague memory of someone teaching us French at primary school, we learnt “un, deux, trios, quatre, cinq” and we sang “Frère Jacques”. Then as suddenly as it started, the teaching of French stopped, possibly a failed experiment?
So I had to wait a few years until I started at secondary school for the French lessons to start again; using a very ancient well-thumbed textbook we learnt about Toto who seemed to spend most of his time either drinking milk from a bowl or sitting under a table as I recall and there was more singing: “Sur le Pont d’Avignon” and “Alouette” and, if I’m not mistaken, we danced around our desks!
To begin with I don’t think I thought much about France, it was still all about the words.
Then in my second year we were all assigned pen friends to whom we wrote letters in appalling French covered in ink blots and smudges which were returned with corrections accompanied by a letter in imperfect English but in much neater hand-writing. I got Françoise who was nearly two years older than me and the following Easter we were all packed off to France to stay with our pen friends and I stayed with Françoise….
Now, I was just thirteen years old and she was nearly fifteen which is a big age gap. She lived right out in the French countryside miles from anywhere. To say it was a culture shock is putting it mildly, I was a ‘townie’, I had never been away from home before, nobody spoke English, the house had no bathroom and a very peculiar loo with a metal flap and flies flew from under the rim when you flushed it…I hate insects. I wept … I wrote a pathetic little letter home asking my parents to come and rescue me.
Apart from the bread which I loved, I hated the food; I think I lived mainly on tinned mixed vegetables and yoghurt. I hated France and I wasn’t very keen on Françoise, I must have been a nightmare for her family and I apologise retrospectively.
I still have my diary from that year and here is what my thirteen year old self thought of the Châteaux of the Loire Valley which I was taken to visit: on Chenonceaux “not much cop”, on Villandry “not bad, gardens not bad”.
The cathedral in Tours also failed to impress and is described as “not very big” and at the zoo “I saw a very thin bear and got bitten by a monkey”.
I was taken around to visit friends and relations: “yuck” was my opinion of some elderly neighbours but “yum!” was what I thought of the glass of rosé they plied me with.
On the positive side I noted “went to see a woman who was Françoise’s friend; drank tea from Morroco (sic)”. I can still remember how delicious that mint tea was and the little homemade pastries flavoured with aniseed.
I returned from France with a small silver plated ring, a bag of madeleines and a 500% improvement in the standard of my written and spoken French! A year or two later my family crossed France to Spain by car with me acting as interpreter, I’m sure I was an ‘insufferable smarty pants’ and a terrible show-off with my newly acquired linguistic abilities.
Years went by, I married and together and we took regular holidays in different regions of France. My French which had become rusty from lack of use, returned to me and the germ of an idea began to grow. Every year we hated returning to the UK more and more, we loved the quiet roads, the markets, the quaint villages and the politeness and hospitality of the French people – wouldn’t it be lovely to live in France….The problem was, how to ‘earn a crust‘? We always stayed in gîtes and suddenly it hit us…we could rent out gîtes!
So we bought a small fermette in the Charente Maritime which we renovated and created two small small gîtes, I taught English, I sold houses, I did caretaking of other people’s houses, anything to earn a few francs. Then ten years later when the gîte market in this area was absolutely saturated we sold up and booked our first holiday for fifteen years in Italy.
Now we come back to ‘my fascination of the words‘ … because I decided to learn some Italian before our trip. I hate to be the sort of tourist who just speaks loudly in English and expects to be understood. So began the search for a teacher of Italian, nothing in the Yellow Pages, no information from the Syndicat d’Initiative! … there ARE courses and tutors “out there”, why is it so hard to find them?
That’s where the idea for my latest venture was born: www.facilitutors.com finding teachers, so you don’t have to. And not just language teachers, there’s art and craft, literacy, cookery and wine appreciation, you can even learn to fly or tie a fly.Image Credits: Photos from Flickr with Creative commons Villandy Gardens by elisabetta2005: Chenonceaux by belgianchocolate