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My daily French lesson is a total delight.  One good reason, another good reason, for looking forward to a sea day. Port days are all very well with the tours and the strange sights and the different languages and all.  But they are exhausting as well as exciting.

Sea days have a lot less stress to them. A lot more free time for reading or writing or doing the laundry or doing nothing at all. 

There's keen interest in the latter, judging by the number of passengers who may be found slumped in deckchairs, a book facedown beside them, contemplating the endless horizon across a gentle expanse of ocean. Or contemplating the insides of their eyelids. But for me, the best part of a sea day comes at eleven-thirty when we assemble in the Uganda Room beside the Crows Nest on the Sun Deck. I bound up the stairs two at a time, all eight floors, five minutes early, to get a good seat, before our charming young French teacher Magali, who moonlights as a professional bellydancer, arrives to call the class to order.

I have an excellent reason. I'm in love.

Magali has that builtin chic that seems to come with the nationality. I don't know if they hand it out as part of the schooling, or maybe it's in the genes, but French folk automatically have it and the British and Americans and Australians don't.

Magali is a long way removed from the teachers of my schoolboy teens.  Informal, there's no round of term examinations and essays for her to plan against. Or for me to worry about. There's no set text, no grammar book or English/French dictionary. No stern classroom discipline.

Magali teaches as she sees fit, and if we all fail or we have a grand party instead of learning our verbs, then it's no skin off her elegant nose. Or my own honker, for that matter.

No, I'm doing it for love alone. For the pleasure of listening, enraptured, to mon professeur explain about snippets of modern French conversation, for the delight in sharing a few sentences with my silvertopped classmates, for the delicious anticipation of wondering what today's lesson will bring.

At the end of this course, there's no final exam, no grade on the report card for my parents to worry over. Just my own pleasure or chagrin over my own progress.

At the end of this course, there’s Paris, and that is where the love part kicks in. I love Paris.

Two years ago I spent a day in Paris and fell in love. With the city, with the people, with the language. The architecture, the grand avenues, the small details. An afternoon wandering around le Quartier Latin, pausing at le Panthéon, sitting on a wall in le Jardin du Luxembourg, browsing in Shakespeare and Co. in that incredible location a hop and a skip from Notre Dame.  My next morning, before taking the midi train to Normandy, was dawn at le Tour d’Eiffel, a breakfast stroll up les Champs Elysees, and a horrified look at the traffic surrounding le Arc de Triomphe in the morning peak.

And a hundred other sights and sounds of Paris. For months afterwards I sighed over the beauty of the city, the unforgettable atmosphere, the bustling streetscapes, the special sense of place. Other visitors saw dog turds, I saw the blossoms of spring.

My wife and I have both visited Paris, but not together, and I’m enough of a romantic fool to spend months dreaming of walking hand in hand with my life partner along the Seine, of sipping coffee in one of those picturesque cafes, of sharing a kiss on top of that iconic tower. My iPod is heavy on the Paris songs: Frank Sinatra crooning “I Love Paris, in the winter when it drizzles, in the summer when it sizzles”; Michel Legrand telling me that “Paris is made for lovers.” No argument from me. I hit the replay button and sigh in helpless delight.

So, when I arranged this trip, a post-cruise visit to Paris, via St Malo and Normandy, was a must. And on learning that there was a French class as part of the ship’s entertainment program, well, what could I do but sign up?

I’d found, on my previous trip, that my schoolboy French of thirty years ago was mostly forgotten and good for little more than greetings and puzzling out street signs. I could commence a conversation, to show politeness, but after the first few words, I was perdu. This time around, I wanted more.

Not that I’ll be fluent after a month of lessons three or four days a week, but at least I’ll be fresh and armed with a few phrases that don’t mark me down as a member of le ancient generation. No more comment allez vous – now it is ça va.

Not that I can hope to fool anyone. My Australian accent and halting delivery, my tortured syntax and outrageous grammar, it means that no matter what I say, every second word is going to be touriste.

Magali must be a saint. There’s a score of us in the same boat, schoolday French forty years rusty, and each time we open our mouths she must wince on the inside. The only decent French speakers in the lot are taken aside for advanced lessons under her twin Amanda, who is every bit as chic as her sister. I make no doubt that together they are breaking hearts all over the ship.

Today’s lesson is verbs. Je danse, tu danses, il danse, nous dansons, vous dansez, ils dansent. Familiar stuff straight out of the classroom. But Magali calls out for volunteers, hands them flash cards, and lines them up to demonstrate. One etudient has the pronouns, another the stem of the verb, and two more have the endings. They shuffle cards in response to Magali’s instructions, and swap places to get the correct construction. It’s a danse, une danse heureuse.

I sit in the back smiling happily. Far too shy to get up and act the verb, my usual part in the class is to come up with bilingual wordplay. “Je suis Anglaise,” a sixty-year old schoolgirl tells me. “Ah, moi Aussie!” I reply.

Or I pass on, as an aside, what seamen say to each other when it is time to leave port: “A l’eau! C’est l’heure!”

Je suis tres heureux.A bientôt!” I wish my smiling classmates, rising when le cours et fini et c’est l’heure rendezvouser avec mon femme pour dejeuner.

Outside in the corridor is the chart showing our progress and noon positions. Today it is Africa out of sight on the port side, and Yemen on the starboard bow. I leave a book under the chart, the perfect themed release: Salmon Fishing in Yemen.

And then leap down the stairs to our cabin, where I take my wife’s hand. “Je t’aime,” I tell her. “Je t’adore.”

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Mid-morning, and I’m up in the Crows Nest bar, a great expanse of busy shipping lane before me. Sumatra just over the southern horizon, supertankers strung out in the distance, and we’ve got a naval vessel of some sort on our port quarter. A corvette, maybe. A very light grey, and we’re overhauling her gradually. Prime territory for pirates here, and it’s good to see the authorities patrolling.
From up here it seems that we are barely moving, but from our cabin just above the water, the ocean fairly surges past. We’d be doing 23 knots or so, a very good clip.
For a wonder, we can actually sea the horizon. Ever since Hong Kong, it’s been nothing but haze. There’s even some blue sky above. With any luck it will be clear until Southampton. Apart from good honest rain, of course.
My computer had some sort of seizure last night and it’s crippled. The desktop doesn’t appear and if I want to fire up a program I have to use Task Manager. This cuts out all sorts of options for me, such as wireless connections, and makes it inconvenient to do anything. Luckily I can still save files to my USB key, and the internet room computers are working, so I can post updates and photographs.
It wasn’t a cold, it was bronchitis. I’ve been having trouble sleeping but so long as I keep myself drugged up, I’ve been able to function and to enjoy the cruise.
[Later] We drew up with the naval vessel, and it wasn’t a warship as such. To my surprise, she was unarmed, and when I raced below to get out my camera with the zoom lens, I found that she was the US Naval research vessel Henson, apparently doing some surveying hereabouts.
Eleven thirty, and it was time for my French lesson. We’ve got a pair of mademoiselles – twins, actually – running the language courses here. French en le matin, et Spanish in the arvo. Useful phrases. Bonjour madam, mangez-vous les petits-four a quarte heures? No, messieur, je mange petit-djeuner a onze heures.
We actually had breakfast – in the Bordeaux Cafe – at eight. Kedgeree for both of us. Usually it’s kippers and Special K in the Medina, but we’ve been trying out our options.
I came down to meet Kerri for lunch. She’d been at a morning talk by a paper money specialist, who is a millionaire several times over in various currencies. The bridge announced that a pair of whales were passing down the port side and we looked out the window and sure enough, there they were, a few backs and spouts in the middle distance. We’ve seen very little wildlife so far. A few flying fish, some jelly fish, and a curious long fish in port in Thailand. It was good to behold Leviathan, even if not at close quarters.
Lunch was the usual random mix. Dinners are fixed, and we have the same companions each night, but lunch depends on who turns up when, and the restaurant manager will fill up tables as he goes. Kerri and I were the first, followed by a couple from Ohio who sat opposite, and the six table was filled by “a pair of girls from Perth”, half of a group of four who are travelling together, sans husbands, and doing a bus tour of the Continent. These girls are well into their fifties, I might add, and having a wonderful time.
After lunch Kerri went off to the gym and I made up for an early morning session up in the internet room by taking to my bed and reading, followed by dozing and then sleeping. Kerri returned, full of moral high ground, and found me snoring unashamedly. I missed my afternoon art class, but frankly, it was good to have a few hours where I wasn’t actually doing anything, and I can’t say that my sleep has been the best recently.
High tea in the Medina. We sat down at a table loaded down with tea things – little fancy cakes and the like – beside a fellow Aussie, travelling alone. A couple from Townsville sat down opposite, and the sixth was a lovely English Lady, who asked where everyone was from in reverse order. She looked at us to finish, and I said, “Well, actually, you’re the only Pom here.”
But she was grand, as charming as ever you please, and we all munched our salmon sandwiches without crusts and spread cream on our strawberry scones and talked of England and Malaya, the weather to be found in such parts, the local beverages, odd behaviour of the natives, plans for the evening and so on.
It’s a formal night tonight. The Black and White Ball, though Kerri and I aren’t much for dancing. Instead we’ll go to the Curzon Theatre in the bows and listen to a pianist giving a recital. Now, excuse me while I dress for dinner.
[LATER] It’s fun getting dressed up, though when you’ve got a limited wardrobe it’s hard to compete with people who get on at Southampton with a full load, take the whole trip and then get off again. We’ve got to fly, and even with my excellent luggage allowance, there are limits.
Dinner was delightful. It takes an hour or so, with entree, soup, main and dessert, and any number of optional extras. There’s multiple choices at each stage, all of them excellent. Let’s see. I started off with a salmon brulee, a little tub of yummy baked stuff with bits of smoked salmon. Gave the soup a miss and my main was the seafood grill, with a huge scallop, a peeled and prepared prawn, and half a lobster tail. With vegetables, potatoes and some sort of Oriental green. The waiters bring around the vegetables separately, and if you aren’t quick, they’ll load up your plate. Look away for an instant and you’ll look back to see a mountain of carrot slices, seven or eight spuds and a waiter offering you a plate full of green beans.
The waiters are superb. Dressed up in crisp whites and immaculate jackets, they work in teams of two, looking after a dozen or so diners. Just ask, and anything you want appears. We’ve got Joe and Dominic, with Sebastian as the wine waiter, and if any of those are their real names, I’ll eat my BookCrossing cap. The crew are mostly Indian, but somehow their nametags all give them distinct, unique European names. This is for ease of identification – if they had actual names on their tags there’d be several dozen Sanjits, I’ll bet.
Dessert for me was the Stilton, rather than one of the five sweets on offer. A waiter comes around with a big wheel of blue vein, scoops out half a plateful and offers you cracker biscuits. Mmmmmm. Coffee to wash it all down.
Chilled water all through the meal, of course. Wine (or beer) is available, but honestly, at the prices charged, I’m happy to go without. We could spend a hundred dollars a day on alcohol easily without getting more than tipsy.
About eight, after sitting down since six-thirty, we rise. Kerri and I head off to the theatre, a seven hundred seat affair in the bows. Red plush seats, a multitude of lights on a stage with bits that go up and down, and a professional performance every night. This evening it’s a pianist and singer, fresh from a West End season, backed by the ship’s orchestra (seven very talented musicians and a drummer, ladies and gentlemen). She belts out some great old tunes and gives a very energetic recital of some jazz standards and a few hepped up classical pieces. The hour just whips by.
And then we’re filing out, a slow turn around the promenade deck in our evening finery, and then to bed. A typical sea day.

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Skyring

September 2010

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