I was inspired, of course, by Madame Upanova, the long-legged, pointe-shoe wearing, gloriously elegant Ostrich danseuse of Walt Disney Fantasia fame. When better to train as a prima ballerina awaiting my Bolshoi debut than during lockdown? So, up and over I went. Let me tell you, those pirouettes and arabesques are a lot harder than Mme Upanova makes them look as she plies across the stage with her black and white feathers flying.
Like many of us cooped up during lockdown, I resolved to check things off my list. Besides the ballet, I had Mari Kondo’d my flat, taken up meditation, and now I would master French. This was a lifelong pursuit that started when I went to school in Montreal, where I spent part of my childhood before moving to Anglophone Toronto, where the trail went dead.
I never understood why all Canadians weren’t bilingual anyway, as French and English are our two official languages. I never saw any drawbacks. Despite my attempts over the years to tackle French, it is an unrequited affair.
What better time could there be than to settle down and finesse my language skills? I had just finished reading John Preston’s biography, Fall, about the notorious newspaper proprietor Robert Maxwell. He claimed to have learned English in six weeks by listening to Winston Churchill’s speeches.
I’ve heard countless people tell me how they learned English watching movies, so I signed up to Duolingo and laughed at the jokes in their story section. I loved listening to Pierre-Benoit and Mark of Coffee Break Academy. I laughed along at their jokes, too, and followed the mystery story of the Advanced Intermediate class. Then, I found Camille of French Today.
On Wednesday, she wrote to me about the difference between written and spoken French and the case of the disappearing “ne”. It is part of a negative phrase for those of you lucky enough not to be familiar with this dastardly language. Except now, there’s no need to pronounce it. “French is an evolving language.”
“On top of the parler d’jeunes (generation Y new slang), the verlan, and the traditional slang, you are going to encounter many grammatical constructions and glidings that are quite far from your textbook French: Welcome to the world of modern spoken French!” I barely understood the English.
Camille says that French “consists of two languages: written French and spoken French. We write, ‘Il ne fait pas beau,’ but we say, ‘ee fay pabo.’” But why? In fact, why oh why oh why?
Why can’t the French be more like the Germans? The Germans have ridiculously long words that they seem to throw together at random. Still, they articulate every syllable and speak slowly, not like they’re rushing to the boulangerie to grab the last baguette before storming the Bastille — pronounced “Bastee”. What’s the point of having two “Ls” if you’re not going to pronounce them?
Camille said, watch Lupin. I was still traumatised from watching the equally brilliant French series, The Bureau. I have taken French for many years; I spent a summer in the town where Le Cirque du Soleil was born, Baie-St-Paul, outside Quebec City. But I had to call my French friend Catherine to complain. “What the hell?” I said. I did not understand a word. Je regrette everything!
I went back to Lupin, which I had already seen. This time I thought, as I know the plot and the characters, I’ll turn off the subtitles, flattering myself that I could quickly get the gist. How difficult could it be? Merde! It was incomprehensible. They swallow their words, and they speak so fast, it’s as if their lives depended on eluding us.
Even words and phrases that we once learned were interestingly different from their English equivalents turn out to be dispensable after all. In my peregrinations across French-learning apps and programmes, I discovered that “medecin”, as in Medecins Sans Frontiers, has morphed into “docteur” and “d’accord” is now “OK”. I think this is revenge for Agincourt.
Along with Mme Upanova, I will delay my curtseys from the Bolshoi stage, dodging the cascading roses thrown from adoring fans, and focus on my French. But I shall keep the subtitles on and hope that osmosis will do the trick.