The French Gambit
I chose to learn French by myself growing up in the fifties in Tambellup. An unexpected gambit, even for me, I suspect, the fourth son of farmers. The family plan had been drilled into me. I was not to inherit part of the farm, but would complete High School and go to University, so that brothers one, two and three could have their share.
While I made a conscious choice to be bilingual, the wheat-belt community of Tambellup insisted on being monolingual, even in the face of the everyday evidence. After collecting me and my brothers, the school bus bumped a mile down the gravel road to collect the Nyungar kids from their humpies on our bottom paddock. When the school bus rolled into town an hour later it passed the twenty 10’ x 8’ duck tents of the town Reserve lined up in two rows with smoky fires between.
Tambellup’s strategy for maintaining monolingualism was simply to not talk about the Aboriginal presence. True, every fourth pupil at Tambellup School was Nyungar and my brothers and I could see the McEvoy’s camp from our farm house. They simply weren’t there and nor were the Nyungar words that seeped into our talk: wadulah, gilgie, boondie and bardie grub. I didn’t even know that the word gidgie for a forked fishing spear was a Nyungar word.
French was invisible.
It was as if English had a stubborn claim on the landscape, which could only be described in summer as a tawny wheat crop stretching to a far horizon shaped by Yates and rivergums, or in winter as Jack Frost making icicles and lace between the strands of the fences. I felt subversive the first time I identified un chien and saw les moutons in the paddocks and watched les nuages float across the sky. And to find the word for ‘paddock’ required a furtive chase.
I first discovered French between the pages of Arthur Mee’s Encyclopædia for Children: a lesson at the end of every chapter. I worked systematically through those lessons.
I knew I was a different child. I preferred reading to reaping, books to bailing the cow, so I kept my new interest secret from everyone, and ploughed ahead. My French pronunciation was exécrable but in every other respect, I put myself ahead of the competitive students I met when I was a boarder at the expensive College in Perth.
By Year 12, I learned how to finesse French Oral examinations. We prepared for these tests out of a book with the bracing title Vocabulaire, organised in headings. Under the heading ‘Le Parc’, we encountered le jardin, with les arbres growing in l’herbe. I prepared by glancing at these headings, but not wading through the lists. In the test room, l’examinateur asked me, ‘Que faites-vous dans le parc?’ I nonchalantly replied, ‘Oh, j’aime pas le parc. Je préfère aller à la plage, où il y a du sable sur lequel on peut se coucher sous le soleil. Je nage dans la mer, et je regarde les jeunes filles.’ I could see l’examinateur lost for a comeback, and when I drew breath, he asked, ‘Qu’est-ce que vous mangez à la plage?’ Well, I didn’t consider the beach a good place for eating, so I took him to another place where the words were more familiar. ‘Je préfère manger à l’école. On nous sert de la viande, des pommes de terre et des petits pois. Qu’est-ce que vous aimez manger ?’
L’examinateur should have taken me back to le parc to answer the question he actually put. He should have thrown me more complex questions to gauge my comprehension speed, he should have rebuked me for asking him questions, but instead he smiled broadly. ‘Vous parlez le français très bien, monsieur. Je vous donne une très bonne note.’ And a very good mark it was too: fifth in the state of Western Australia. I slyly enjoyed my astute dishonesty.
From sleepy Perth I followed the French riots of 1968, half-adulating Daniel Cohn-Bendt as a hero. I enjoyed graffiti seen around Paris in May 1968: ‘Attention! De Gaulle nous double à gauche’; Faites l’amour sans lâcher le fusil.’ Nowhere else in Perth could you, vicariously at least, enjoy a good revolution! A new thrilling wave of subversion rumbled through me.
But no native speaker of French would mistake me for one of them. My French teacher in Years 11 and 12, Giovanni Andreoni, was a flamboyant Italian, whose accent temporarily rubbed off on me. ‘Tu parles le français comme une vache espagnole,’ one interlocutor told me. I felt a little squashed being called a talking cow – even if with a Spanish accent.
Some years later, I spent a week in Germany speaking French to my wife’s German cousin. When we then travelled from Germany to Paris, our French hotelier assumed I was Austrian and not Australian.
I went back to study and learned Greek and Hebrew. Unlike the way living languages are taught, the Bible’s languages were taught in English medium. The cultures of the Old Testament and Palestine in Jesus’ time were explained in English. I could make bridges between English and the Hebrew and the Greek. Meaningful translations of alien concepts were attempted. I applied what I learned across the divide between my French and English worlds. I was beginning to find some integration in my life.
But I was still bothered that most of the people I loved could only relate to one of these worlds: my family, colleagues, and most of my friends had their feet and their hearts solidly in Anglo soil only. By contrast, the friends I had through French were much more able to relate to the whole of me.
At 29, I met Rae. We were at a youth group gathering. I was the curate of the parish, Rae one of the youth leaders. I was writing pastoral notes in French as a measure of confidentiality. Rae was looking over my shoulder, and asked, ‘Why are you writing in French?’
‘Well,’ I struggled for a reply. ‘It can be private to me.’
Rae grinned. ‘Not if I can read it.’
I learned quickly to love the version of English idioms Rae’s German mother had taught her. Noticing one of the teenagers devour a sausage in a bun Rae commented, ‘Look at him woofing it down!’ Instead of ‘excuse me’ she would say ‘Shoos me,’ and laugh off her mother’s bilingual repertoire. ‘She’s dressed up to be nice,’ Rae sometimes observed, which apparently made more sense than the ‘nines’ of the usual English idiom. Her mother had grown up in the dark shadow of the Third Reich. Her father was English. Rae emigrated from England with a plum in her mouth when she was ten, so learned quickly to adopt the Australian accent she retains to this day. We fell in love and married.
A year later we travelled to France and Germany. We arrived at the old town of Saint-Malo on the Brittany coast in mid-winter. We walked hand in hand around the old sea walls enjoying the bracing winds. I bought a replica pirate’s pistol for Rae’s 14 year old brother.
She said, ‘Maybe you were a pirate in a past life.’
Pointing at the jetty, I replied, ‘I can’t really see you as a pirate’s môle, though.’ She smiled. We were conscious that we were exploring not only the outward landscape of Europe, but each other’s paysage de l’imagination.
These days I teach French at the Naturaliste University of the Third Age, and love long conversations with the French immigrants attracted to living ‘down south’ among the vineyards and cheese-makers. At the Vasse market, my friend Jean-Yves tells me about his passion of pâtisserie, and how ‘c’est impossible d’obtenir ici la farine d’amande,’ – almond flour being the basis of many of his recipes. ‘Les fromages australiens,’ another stall-holder allows, ‘sont aussi délicieux que ceux de la France.’
I read Le Monde, in its version numérique, weekly. I can feel isolated. Sometimes people pay me two-edged compliments. A woman recently told me, ‘Tu parles comme un livre de grammaire.’ Most Australians don’t understand what it means to be bilingual; many of those who do don’t want to know.
But mostly, I am aware of landscapes. I peel back the world of English words and English habits of thinking and there’s a complete and new world, the same but not the same. I can look at the ‘sky,’ for example, and wonder about the sky’s colour, its shape, even its science, in English. The moment I label it ‘le ciel,’ I add to my experience of ‘ciel’s’ other meaning of ‘heaven.’ It subverts the whole world. It joins science and faith.
I see a paddock, and eventually discover that the nearest translation is ‘l’enclos’ which connotes a green space for small animals, not a wide open paddock painted gold with canola. Each enclos holds its whole European history in tension with the Australian reality.
Two wonderful children were born after our trip to Europe. When they were babies, I talked to them in French as much as possible. When they were ten and eight, we lived in Mauritius. Clancy Bissoondeeal was a member of Saint-Thomas church in Beau-Bassin where we worshiped for those weeks. Clancy offered to show us over the school where he worked. We were speaking in French, and I noticed that although the school was called Bon Accueil, Clancy’s title was Headmaster, not le Directeur. The library was labelled ‘Library’, not ‘Bibliothèque.’. ‘Pourquoi les titres anglais?’ I asked. Clancy told us, ‘Most Mauritians speak French at home, or maybe Hindi dialect. But school must be English medium. So we all speak two languages, three pour la plupart: French, English and Créole.’
Looking for further enlightenment, I went to the bishop’s house. The bishop’s wife told me, ‘We have French for relationships, we have English for business.’
Our kids are now in their late twenties. On a recent visit to Perth, we stayed with our daughter and son-in-law in their Huntingdale house. My wife and I sat in the lounge room, and over-heard our daughter in the nursery reading French words to our five month old grand-daughter. Her response? Une cascade pétillante of giggles.