Phonétiques

‘There is only one rule for being a good talker- learn to listen’. (Christopher Morley).

When I returned to Paris in June this year I can remember feeling so thrilled to touch down as far away from the long Melbourne winter as possible, and straight into the height of summer and the warmth afforded to Paris in it’s summer months.

With my first hour spent in the within the four grey walls that form customs at Charles de Gaulle as I waited patiently to wave my new visa under the nose of the ever handsome but always unimpressed officers, I reeled with jet lag – dreaming of a cold face washer to wipe the sweat off my upper lip.
I eventually stepped out into the Parisian sunlight with two oversized bags following nothing but an less than enthusiastic ‘meh’ from customs, as they punched my passport with their giant stamp and waved me through.

Once in a taxi, I mumbled through my French instructions to a driver who complimented me on my mumbles, before shouting ‘Bienvenüe à Pareeeee,’ as he merged into the traffic and almost sideswiped a very small car driven by a nun in full habit, accompanied by her travel companion, also in full habit.

Silent interactions where few words are exchanged are rare, but they often form the foundations for the most special (and humorous) memories. My ramblings to the taxi driver were limited – we covered the weather, the beauty of Paris in summer (and autumn, and winter and spring) and following the basics, I listened intently as he told me stories of his Paris – a Paris that he loves and will be forever grateful to call home. Naturally (with talking being one of my few fortes), I would have loved to have made a more meaningful contribution to his banter, but I continued to simply nod, because words failed me and I was utterly exhausted. As with many conversations I have in Paris, I learnt a lot about that driver because I wasn’t in a position to talk over him while failing to listen – something that comes with speaking in your native tongue, and a trait that is often not hugely beneficial in the moment.

It is no secret that Love Actually is one of my favourite films, ever.  I’ve written about this before and I’m happy to write about it again. In particular, I enjoy the romance between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia, a beautiful Portuguese house keeper, who comes with Jamie’s rented country house in France which has a stunning view of a lake.

Each day he types his book, and each night he drives her home. They fall in love, he speaks no Portuguese and she, no English. During their car trips, they converse in their native tongues and share how much they have fallen in love with each other and just how much that particular part of the day means to them. My eyes fog up here every time- and there have been many, trust me. I watched it for the five millionth time about a month ago tucked up in bed with a cup of tea and high spirits, while being guarded by a pigeon who sat on the window sill perplexed as I said ‘yes, I love you Colin,’ to seemingly no one.

Once back in London, Jamie (Colin) spends hours and hours, day after day, week after week attending Portuguese lessons where he dons a headset and attempts to learn the language phonetically. He fails miserably but it is entertaining nonetheless.

This week, I have begun my own ‘cours de phonétique’ and, while Colin/Jamie isn’t sitting one down from me, I put on a headset at 8.30 each morning and speak to myself for an hour before the voice of our professor, Aude, comes through the speakers saying ‘à demain’ and with that, she smiles and clip clops out of the room in high heels that always match her dress.
Learning French is one thing, but speaking it is an entirely different ball game. I’ve never been much chop at ball games, and so many of the issues that I have with speaking French (not unlike ball games), relate to the fear of making a mistake- or multiple mistakes.

All of those consonants joining a vowel and the E’s that often lose their way when anywhere near an L, and don’t even get me started with the letter R. I still cant get my head around calling a street a loo (from the bottom of my throat with my neck sticking out) when my English speaking face wants to call it a roo.

This morning following an hour of phonetics, I felt newly confident and wholly inspired as I went to my daily two hour session of grammar and oral – complimenting my lecturer on her robe which I actually made sound more like lobe (if I were to say ‘lobe’ while being sick), as I walked in the door. The phonetics element, headset and all, is easily the saviour I have so needed in my seemingly never ending battle with this language.

As part of the course, we are expected to attend at least four, two hour lectures per week on everything from music, the arts, politics and the history of french language and today, I sat in a lecture hall and listened to a curious paring named Dominique and Matthieu speak ‘en rapide français’ about the history of music in Paris – covering everyone from Nerval, Baudelaire, Apollinaire, Prevert, Queneau and Roubaud. There was a contemporary element as well, and this is where Matthieu really took charge with his thinning hair parted down the center, he giggled at his own jokes as he spoke of the importance of listening, regardless of what you may or may not understand.

When Matthieu arrived, he kissed Dominique on both cheeks before sitting at his microphone and turning on a song aptly named ‘Paris’. ‘J’aime Paris, j’aime Paris, j’aime Paris’ formed the chorus, and for the rest of the song I had to really listen. Listen with great intent I did, and throughout the following two hours Dominique and Matthieu delivered a beautiful history of multiple songs and as many musicians – and I don’t think I blinked, not even once.

Walking out into the daylight almost seven hours later I made a beeline for a sweet café on the way home where I have been enjoying a daily coffee served by a man with the charm of a cat. The more I ignore him, the more likely he is to edge up to the table in a fashion reserved for Rowen Atkinson (who also had a terrific role in Love Actually) and ask, ‘are you sad?’. The first time he questioned if ‘etes-vous triste?’ I blinked at him and answered with a very simple ‘non’.
Now, I always smile and ask if he is ok, as I think that is what he really wants. Today I shocked him when I ordered lunch, rather than coffee, and a bottle of tap water for the table. Throwing his head back and gargling like a walrus (or how I would imagine a walrus would gargle), he corrected my use of the ‘R’ in ‘caraf’ telling me it is ‘CAAAA-HALf D’oh’ before slinking back inside.

At 38 and 3/4, if there is one thing that this whole experience is teaching me, it is the importance of listening – whether it be in a pod wearing headphones and repeating myself to myself during phonetics, or in a lecture with a woman who looks more like a matron from school than a music buff, along with her thin haired and hugely knowledgable sidekick. Even Mr Bean has something to say.

I feel closer than ever to ‘getting there’ and never have I felt quite so rewarded to be able to contribute in a deft and organised, wholly unintentional but hugely beneficial, state of silence.

Pictured:  My new view for the next two weeks and just four blocks from home.  Change is indeed, as good as a holiday,

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