When an Australian woman moved to a village in southern France, she joined a class to help her learn the language. But her time spent with an eclectic group of fellow students held lessons of its own. By Rachael Mogan McIntosh.

French lessons at the Calade

The author’s daughters run through the streets of their temporary  home town.
The author’s daughters run through the streets of their temporary home town.
Credit: Rachael Mogan McIntosh

I recently spent a year in France with my family. I went with just a smattering of the language, including some sentences I memorised from a delightfully strange French-lesson book. “He has retained his vigour throughout the years.” “I only buy beige stockings.” “Poor little thing. She is cross-eyed.” My favourite – and perhaps the only useful phrase in the bunch – was “Hush! Let’s not be indiscreet!” Chut! Ne soyons pas indiscrets! I see now that I would have done better to focus on verb conjugations rather than comedic phrases, but hindsight is 20:20.

I found companionship and solidarity in my attempts to learn French at the Calade, a volunteer-staffed community organisation that helps new migrants settle in to the country. They kindly took on the language-challenged Australian who had landed in their small town and, twice a week, my maîtresse, Nathanelle, all flowing hair and toothy grin, gathered students from Finland, Russia, Morocco, Spain, Brazil, Senegal, Thailand, Ecuador, Iraq and more around a battered table in an underheated classroom.

A from Bulgaria, pink cheeks and a fluffy blonde bubble of hair, sat next to teenage M from Senegal, who was always pressed to perfection in a bright yellow button-down. L from Madagascar was laid-back in dreads and neon athleisure wear, cracking asides in his gravelly voice. The outfits of Moroccan F brought me enormous joy. In winter she favoured a beanie with a giant bobble on top of her headscarf and, generally, she devoted herself to taking the concept of pattern clashing to the limit.

With the clarity of language stripped from us in the Calade classroom, we were forced to find subtle alternatives. Mainly, we turned to gentleness, kindness and humour. It was a safe space to be stupid, this room. A safe space in which to slowly work things out. Most bonding of all, it was a room full of laughter.

My classmates knew almost nothing of Australia. “Is that in Europe?” asked one. The cultural touchstones that we rely on to tell friend from enemy and to place people in context: education, socioeconomics, class… these clues were all missing. Everybody was an enigma. The room pulsed with the energy of backstory; sometimes told, but never requested. The Calade classroom was a study in respect.

School days were tiring, and they often ended with what I came to think of as the Migraine of Stupidity. Class started with “conversation practice”, which ranged in unexpected directions. One day we spoke of national foods. I tried to explain the “gut brain” and the obsession my liberal-bubble Australian beachside community had with the digestive system. I spoke of how people fermented vegetables, sprouted nuts and regarded gluten as the devil’s cocktail. These ideas were novel and hilarious to my classmates, and not just because of my poor French. (I’m still proud of the Early Man miming that I employed to illustrate the concept of “paleo”.)

One day, Nathanelle tried to teach us the expression, “Qui vole un oeuf, vole un boeuf”, meaning once a thief, always a thief. It devolved, as Calade conversations often did, from a translation of “beef” to a parsing of the phrase “gros testicules”, or “big balls”. Nathanelle finally drew a pair of balls on the whiteboard to illustrate the difference between a bull and a cow. Out of respect to the conservative Arabic women and the young shy African man in class we tried not to laugh, but the effort made more than a few of us cry, especially when Nathanelle added a jaunty hat to her drawing.

We studied a lot of French expressions. “Quelqu’un dans le nez” was another: this person is up my nose. I refrained from sharing an Australian equivalent: “This person is getting on my tits.”

After conversation, we paused for morning tea, often with cakes we’d made. One day, generously built A from Morocco broke out into a glorious hip-shimmy as she delivered a tray of sweets, while all the Arabic women started ululating and the rest of us applauded wildly. Some of the women stirred their tea with sprigs of mint they carried wrapped in foil, and I put sugar cubes (the brand was Daddy) into the coffee I’d learnt to take black.

My Iraqi and Brazilian classmates bonded over their shared love of the Brazilian soap opera Totalmente Demais. During Ramadan, the Muslim women stopped taking coffee, so none of us brought in cake, but when Ramadan was over, we celebrated with a feast.

Grammar was tough. The Migraine of Stupidity kicked in early when trying to grasp the passé récent, the futur and the vérité générale. Sometimes the “fake listening face” I learnt from my husband shielded my ignorance, but occasionally everybody tried to help me. I usually just pretended to understand so that the helping would stop, but pretending comprehension to a group this large was emotionally disconcerting, like faking an orgasm at an orgy. I imagine.

Each week, petit à petit, I felt the groaning machinery of my old brain moving puzzle pieces into place, Babel-Fishing the gibberish around me into comprehensible language. But my brain felt slow and creaky, the hard drive too full of Survivor alliances and school-lunch hacks to take in new information. My compassion grew for what my three small children were handling at French school every day, and I gained a fresh understanding of the relentless, exhausting experience of migrants and asylum seekers.

As the year wore on, the complexities of my fellow classmates’ lives were revealed. The Syrian refugees, a pair of glamorous lawyers who would become dear friends and neighbours, arrived in class shell-shocked at the reality of starting their lives over. Shy, sweet E from Albania was denied asylum. I pictured him in his AC/DC T-shirt, holding his small son’s hand on the walk to school every day, and I felt like a ridiculous dilettante enjoying my “year of adventure”. E just wanted a safe, ordinary life.

Z from Iran liked to pair her headscarf with a T-shirt that read “Babe” in hot-pink script. One day she stopped wearing the head covering. We didn’t ask questions. We just showed up to class, stayed within our careful boundaries, and stepped into greater intimacy when required. Once when I dissolved into tears – travelling husband, sad children and injured back – I was comforted by an elderly lady with a Berber tribal tattoo on her chin.

There were profound benefits to being made mute. I could not express myself, and being forced just to listen was humbling and infuriating and illuminating. It was ego-busting to be stripped of the practised performance of my personality.

The world went on outside – war, Trump, global politics – but we discussed these things hardly at all. We talked about children and food, shopping and skin care. We took excursions to the snow, the Roquefort cheese factory, a discount store. Our Calade bubble was a sort of otherworldly place, a liminal land where our superficial conversations were infused with shimmering, untold stories of war and social breakdown and new relationships and heartbreak and families far away.

Outside the classroom, there were noisy bigots and fundamentalists, their hateful views and racial tensions fanned by the hot breath of a diabolical media machine. But inside that room, we were just everyday schmucks, doing our best to cope with – as the Korean proverb has it – our thousand joys and thousand sorrows. We leaned into our similarities, which were far more legion than our differences. Democracy was debated outside but it was lived in that room.

My experiences at the Calade were perhaps the most enriching of my privileged, safe life. Around that ordinary table, our melange of accents and ideas merged into something idiosyncratic, unrepeatable and precious. I may not have learnt how to speak French so well (mime skills notwithstanding) but the knowledge I gained in that little school will infuse the rest of my life.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 8, 2020 as "French connection".

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Rachael Mogan McIntosh is a crisis counsellor, ethics teacher, writer and mother of three.

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