My lockdown project was an easy choice. I’ve been learning French for decades. I could now devote my non-commuting hours to upping my language to the level where, when I next make a business trip to Paris, my interlocuteur doesn’t have to disdainfully switch to English.
My first destinations were the online language exchanges where you look for a native speaker who chats to you in French in return for help in improving their English. These are set up like dating sites, many with profile pictures and lists of your potential partner’s interests.
My last foray into the world of dating not only preceded the internet — it preceded the IBM PC. Dipping my toe in now, I immediately understood the complaints of my divorced friends: what was I letting myself in for? Vincent might prove to be a scintillating language partner, with interests in running, reading, cinema and supply-chain management — and he certainly seems less scary than Strawberry, whose motto is “never wound what you can’t kill” — but did I want to spend time finding out?
Instead I explored Spotify and, after a few dead ends, discovered a course called Coffee Break French. This is produced by Radio Lingua, a company founded by a Scottish languages teacher called Mark Pentleton. He and his teaching partner Pierre-Benoît Hériaud, who, when he switches to English, also has a delicious Scottish accent, became companions on my morning walk. Their approach suited me; the 20-30 minute lessons are thoughtfully structured and grammatically rigorous.
The storylines, one involving emails between a daughter and her mother about whether she will end up on a date with a man she bumps into on the RER train every day and what ice cream she will eat when she does, are somewhat lacking in dramatic suspense. But Mark and Pierre-Benoît are so engaging, their enthusiasm for the subjunctive so persistent, that I worked my way through their entire 40-episode advanced programme.
“Advanced” is flattering to my French. If I really were advanced, I would be able to manage a French movie without subtitles. I have two approaches to French films: subtitles in French or subtitles in English, which I try not to look at unless I have to, which is nearly all the time. I used the second method for my other lockdown find, Dix pour cent (disappointingly called Call My Agent! in English), a Netflix series about a Paris-based movie talent agency.
The workplace crises evoke deep nostalgia for the days when we used to spend our days in offices, the love affairs would give an American or British HR manager palpitations, and the series is enlivened by the appearance of genuine film stars, including Juliette Binoche and Isabelle Huppert (along with others I hadn’t heard of but who Google told me were well known in France), who sportingly send themselves up.
The Bodley Head/FT Essay Prize
Now in its eighth year, the FT and The Bodley Head, one of Britain’s leading publishers of non-fiction, team up to find the best young essay-writing talent from around the world. The competition has been the springboard for many writers; entries can be submitted at ft.com/bodley2020. It is open to anyone between 18 and 35 years of age.
As the months passed, I wondered whether I should reconnect with my old French teacher. She, as it happens, was an internet find a few years back: the first French teacher I clicked on on Gumtree. Her interests — diplomacy, politics and language — had proved a better fit than the likes of Vincent and Strawberry, and after discussing an article from Le Monde in our lessons, we would work our way through the grammatical lapses I had accumulated over the years. Eventually, her principal profession as an interpreter took off to the point where she could abandon teaching and our lessons ended.
Did lockdown mean she was available for lessons again? She was. We are on Zoom weekly. One day, with my improved lockdown French, a work trip may even take me on the Eurostar back to Paris.
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