Posts Tagged ‘French’

The funeral of a neighbour brings me to the old church of St Michael’s and All Angels. It looks like the whole village has turned out. He was a well known character, much loved. It’s a hot day and I feel stupid for having brought a hat, this being to spare my bald pate under the fierce sun. But, apart from in gangster movies, is it ever acceptable for a man to wear a hat to a funeral? I had to walk there, so needed a hat, but then what does one do with it when one gets there? Maybe it is acceptable, but no one else had one, and I felt self-conscious twiddling with it throughout the proceedings. Strange, this self consciousness. You’d think I would be old enough now to disregard it. But enough about the hat.

We sang Guide me, O Thou Great Redeemer, and Abide with me, read psalm 23, then the graveside thing. It was the full Anglican, so to speak. Then I walked home, in my hat, feeling overdressed. I spoke last time of religious observance being rejected in the west, and the church communities dwindling, yet, when it comes to the great events of life, we still like the church thing. We blow the dust off our childhood, and enter once more the ancient places, summon the priestly, and know roughly what to say in the right, and sometimes also the wrong places.

I’ve not worn a suit for years. It felt strange, strange also seeing so many faces I am familiar with in more casual garb, and all of us looking today, I suppose, like city-slickers. I also had to think about how you tie a tie. Afterwards, I sat out in the garden with tea. My neighbour was very old, and had lived an active life, until Covid, and lock-downs, which seemed to send him into a decline. Final departures are always poignant, but we do not live forever. He was given a good send off, will be long remembered, and by many.

One is always thoughtful after a funeral. There is a tenderness about them, a sadness of course, but it’s also an occasion to see old faces, and catch up. And laughter is never far away as stories are swapped in the mood of fond remembrance. But being myself not a naturally sociable soul, I mean beyond my immediate family, I find myself wondering who would turn up to mine. Certainly not the whole village. Then again, I don’t suppose it’s a problem that will concern me much, when the time comes.

Anyway, all this quiet reflection is arrested by my neighbour on the other side who plays rock music to the birds, and gets out his thundering tractor mower. Life goes on, of course. But must it always be so damned tasteless and ill-timed? Ah, but just listen to me. (apologies to rock music lovers)

Anyway, it’s a beautiful June day, the garden is coming on. My good lady’s tomatoes are showing flower, and she’ll be pleased about that, as she’s been nurturing them like babies since they were but tiny seeds. Then, perhaps in defiance of the inappropriate rock music, I find myself thinking of an earworm of an old song, one I once attempted to translate from the French, as part of my half century of attempts to learn the language. Languages are not my forte, but I should like to one day order lunch in French, in France, without the waiter laughing. Not all ambitions need be great to be satisfying in their pursuit. It goes something like this:

The sea, we see dancing,
Along the clear bays,
With silvery reflections.
The sea, reflections change,
Under the rain.
The sea, which the summer sky
Makes of these white breakers, like sheep,
The purest of angels.
The sea, an azure shepherdess,

Look, near the pools,
These tall wet reeds.
Look, these white birds,
And these rust-coloured houses.
The sea, it cradles them all,
Along the clear bays,
And a love song,
The sea, it cradles my heart for all time.

This, of course, being my own somewhat poetically loose interpretation of Charles Trenet’s 40s classic, La Mer. That’s a beautiful image, “the sea, we see dancing”, and even if you don’t understand the French, you cannot help but feel the sun coming out as it is sung. All of which seems somehow appropriate on this glorious afternoon, and a sweet segue from contemplation of the funereal, back into the light of life.

Thanks for listening

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duolingoI don’t know why I’m studying French. I’ve only been to France twice in my life – well, to Paris. But they were mad-rush airport-and-hotel business-trips that could have been anywhere. It was hardly the Paris of Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris”. The Provence of Ridley Scott’s “A Good Year” would have been better. I could have settled then into a rural backwater, a crusty ex-pat-gone-native, pigged out on red-wine and cheese.

I’ve been learning French since I was eleven, dropped it at twelve, then picked it up again in my forties. But I always found it difficult to make more than stilted Pidgin conversation with it. Still, it would have been good to sit at a French pavement café and order, in French, without the waiter saying to me, in perfect English: “it would be much easier, mate, if we both spoke English.”

But with one thing and another I never did make it to France for pleasure. And then this Covid thing has put the Kybosh on it for goodness knows how long. So there’s no point labouring the language learning, is there? Except I’ve discovered this language App on my phone. It’s called Duolingo and I’m addicted to it – been brushing up my French like Billy-O.

I don’t know what use I’ll put it to. And I admit it does seem rather a small life’s ambition to order un croque-monsieur without le serveur smirking. Or is that “une croque-monsieur“? The gender thing throws me. I mean like how in France a glass is masculine, yet a cup – not that much different in functional terms – is feminine. To a native English speaker this seems an unnecessary complication. Or are we missing something? Do languages with gendered nouns reveal something philosophically profound about that nation’s culture? I don’t know. Maybe I’m thinking too much about things. But then I like doing that, so no harm.

I mean: Esque il y a un raison ces choses est intéressant de moi? Well is there? A reason these things are interesting to me?

So, there I am sitting at my table and the waiter comes over and I order my stuff in French. But I do it with a strong Lancashire accent that sometimes confuses even Englishmen. Could it be he’s thinking it would be cool to be English, as much as I’m thinking it would be cool to be French? Because, you know, that’s it with us humans. We’re always exploring the possibilities. Always une touche de glamour sur l’inconnu. A certain glamour about the unknown.

Except of course, in times of chaos, fear has us shutting out the unknown. This can be anything beyond our normal boundaries – boundaries of state, of trust, or even just our day to day experience. Thus, we can be abused in certain parts of England for speaking Arabic, or having a black skin, or for wearing a face-mask.

Depuis quand sommes-nous devenus si peur de tout? When did we become so afraid of everything?

I could read some French poets perhaps. But then I’m barely familiar with the full range of the British. So there’s no mileage in that, beyond the satisfaction of discovery of course. Or I could read Proust’s seven volume tome, A la recherche du temps perdu, in French? That might take some time, especially considering I got no further than the first chapter in English. Yes, we thrive on challenge, but we should also pick our battles.

I suppose that’s it though: challenge. Chaos is what we face on a daily basis. It is our lot in life, but there are times when chaos wins out. It becomes a fire-breathing dragon, devouring the foundational structure of our societies. It burns away the certainties, devours our courage, and we seal ourselves off from fresh experience. We lose our fight against the dragon, and become much less than we can be.

It’s a small thing then, persevering with a foreign language one is unlikely to use. It’s just one of the many things that pique my interest, but each of them wins back a little order from the chaos. It lays a foundation to my affairs. And in seeking to make sense of things, anything that piques our interest, we slay the dragon, restore balance to our bit of the world, perhaps even improve things a little. And if enough of us do that,… well,…

Je pense que ç’est la raison nous dois la faisons.

I think that’s why we’ve got to do it. Just be interested,… in stuff.

It beats the hell out of chanting slogans, and leaving abusive comments on social media anyway.

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They say travel broadens the mind. It can also expand it into other dimensions if you’re not afraid to look at things and read more into them than is perhaps literally apparent or socially acceptable. For example, take a look at these two giant bronze lovers:

Are they embracing before separation, or in reunion? Paul Day’s massive sculpture at London’s Saint Pancras station certainly arrested my attention as I was en route for Paris the other week. As with many symbols we encounter in the course of our travels, they can take on a significance that has nothing to do with their original intention. They speak to us intimately,  if we let them. For myself, this sculpture spoke of a passionate farewell. But more symbolically and personally, it spoke of a leaving behind of hearth and home, a breaking from Anima’s siren voice, and a stepping out into the world beyond my comfortable horizons. Will they ever see each other again? And if they do, will time and distance have changed them?

It was 07:15 am, the vast space of St Pancras was hushed and glowing dimly in the dawn light. Ahead of me was a two and a quarter hour train journey. By mid-morning, I’d be in Paris. All of this was business and I wasn’t expecting much by way of personal revelation, but images stick, and travel, be it spiritual or physical, is all about making the right connections. Paul Day’s sculpture certainly changed things for me on this trip.

My first memorable connection, after taking leave of these St Pancras lovers, was in Paris, Gare Du Nord. It was a poorly dressed Algerian woman, middle aged, palms upturned and an enquiring “Monsieur?” She looked wretched and she broke my heart.

“Je m’excuse Madame, je n’ai pas d’argent Francais.”

It was an encounter my French teacher had not prepared me for. The poor woman looked at me as if I were a blathering idiot, offering such a polite rebuff to a street beggar. He could only be “un dumb Angalis”, she was thinking. But I wasn’t lying – I had no French money, other than plastic, and hey, everyone deserves respect even those who don’t expect it.

Her face remained with me, like something from a dream, briefly glimpsed, and not really understood in the symbolic sense. Was the muse haunting me? Was she already so impoverished by my neglect of her? Come on, love, it’s only been a few hours, give me a break!

I was heading for an industrial suburb, to the south of Paris, and made my way by combination of SNCF and bus. Usually my main concern when travelling like this is that my dozy head will fall behind and, by missing something, cast me into the bowels of some impenetrable maze from which there is no hope of either progress or safe return. Numbers become critical, in a literal sense of course: departure and arrival times, bus numbers, train numbers, but when you find those numbers chiming with other parts of your life you begin to sense a different kind of connection is being made. And numbers are also archetypes. 125 is one of mine, the numerological sum of which is 8, also 1881, the numerological sum of which is 9. 8 and 9, the former representing the attainment of materialistic goals by a process of quiet perseverance, the latter presaging the dawn of a new understanding. And familiar numbers catch your eye. They have you dropping out of defensive mode because it’s like the Universe winking at you, reminding you it’s intentions are never hostile, that if you can open yourself to it, then it will always lend you its protection, and teach you some interesting stuff along the way.

Home for the night was a little hotel, heavy on applejack green – a little garish for my taste, but not uncomfortable. Its neighbours were a motorcycle dealership and a Sushi restauraunt. They were laying tramlines outside until four in the morning, but they didn’t disturb me. They could have been testing rockets as well for all I know. I was so tired and curiously relaxed, even after a twelve hour day, I let the Paris night close over me and drag me down to unknown depths of dreamless sleep, from which my friendly Android struggled to rescue me.

Anima was at the reception desk next morning, nicely dressed and looking much more self-assured. She was wanting to know the word that meant “to join papers, like this?” she made a hand gesture which confused me until she clarified matters by producing her stapler. She was lovely and charming. I gave her the word “to staple”, and could hear her quietly repeating it, so as not to forget, while I finished my coffee and shouldered my bag. I noted wrily, as I stepped out into another chill autumn dawn that it was probably going to be my only tangible contribution to Anglo-French relations. But the I Ching had counselled me to keep an open mind, to fit in, to go with the flow, and I was trying.

I’d set out without expectation, but already I could feel things were different this time, at least internally. I was possibly unhinged for a start, but I seemed whole lot calmer for it, and was travelling thoughtfully at least. Nor had I left my self at home, pining for my eventual return. I had my self with me, and he was proving to be good company. And my self liked the French people he had met, liked speaking with them in his broken French, and they had seemed to like him. Even the waiter in the restaurant the night before – the place decked out like a tart’s boudoir – had failed to arouse anything but my humour when, plonking a bottle of wine at my elbow, had declared solemnly that “if I did not like, it it was not his fault”.

And in spite of his mysterious pessimism, I had liked it very much.

Whatever had he meant by that? In the literal sense, I’d no idea of course. Maybe the poor guy had been at my elbow all night asking me to taste the damned stuff and I’d been too busy explaining to my companion the wonders of the English Lake District. But metaphorically? Well, there’s a lifetime of over-analysis there, and I’m still thinking about it. Perhaps my reply should have been: “If I do not like it, I will be too polite to complain, and shall finish it anyway, as if were the elixir of the gods”?

Regrettably, I saw very little of Paris – the Paris of romance, of the Tour Eiffel, of the Moulin Rouge. But this was not unexpected. A hair-raising taxi ride across town was about my lot. It afforded me glimpses of a vibrant city bathed in autumn sunshine, a golden light permeating the air, teasing me sufficiently to make me hope I’d one day return, but on my own terms next time, and to make a more leasurely sojourn. Then I was boarding the Eurostar and being shot homeward, like an arrow from Diana’s bow.

I was looking forward to a reunion with the Lovers at St Pancras, a sort of metaphorical full circling of my journey, but the arrivals’ elevator took me away from an easy return to Anima, as I had once known her. Instead I found myself ejected into the cold, and the rain, and the dark of the busy Euston road. Then it was a slit eyed walk to meet my evening train back up north, where I found myself seated opposite the most unassuming of Gods. This was to be the man who bore the closing message of at least the metaphorical, imaginal, dimension of my journey.

The ancient Greeks believed the gods went among us in disguise, so you should always be respectful in your encounters with strangers lest you inadvertently offend one of the gods – and you really don’t want to do that. It’s a custom that fell out of use thousands of years ago of course, but in light of our current understanding of psychical parallels between Greek mythology and the Archetypal reality, it’s a custom worth familiarising yourself with, especially if you intend making much way inside your head.

It’s not often strangers converse on trains, at least not in my experience. We look askance, we bury our heads in our newspapers or our tech, even over hundreds of miles, and I’m not the greatest conversationalist, especially not five hours into a seven hour homeward journey. I don’t know what the spark was, but before that Virgin train had reached Wigan Wallgate this guy was the best friend I’d never had, and what’s curious is we found we shared a name from the past – an old colleague, alas one that had not meant anything to me, other than as a milestone deep in the early history of my manhood.

I could not reciprocate the amazing tales of his latter day exploits with tales of my own because in truth I’d all but forgotten him. Rather the literal significance here for me was the staggering coincidence that I could share an awareness of this person with a stranger on a train. As for the metaphorical,… well,..

I left him at Wigan Wallgate and sailed on into the night, me ever thoughtful and tired. It was after ten thirty now. Preston wasn’t too far away, and then there was a half hour taxi ride home, but already I was returning with a greater awareness of who I was and, crucially, who I was not.

That stranger on the northbound Virgin service had reminded me of a self I’d thought was still a part of me, and made me realise how little kinship I still kept with that formative past. In fact I’d buried it long ago. This is magical thinking of course and very much out of fashion, but wonderfully instructive if you can persuade yourself to indulge in it.

I’ve written very little since I returned – this being by way of an icebreaking piece. Instead I’ve been reading, another journey in itself. I’ve not seen Anima either. So far as I know she’s still waiting for me at St Pancras. She’ll catch up eventually, of course – she always does – and boy is she going to be cross! Are we the same lovers who took our leave that morning? No, something’s changed for sure. I know when I look her in the eyes again, I’ll be hoping to see a little deeper into things than I did before.

I trust she can respect that.


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