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.”