French lessons with Laurelle and Jean

Travelling from Lyon to Marseille on a Saturday afternoon had been a delightful experience.

I had never travelled on a TGV before and sat in the top deck of a carriage watching the Provençal countryside pass by. The end of May and the cornfields seemed ready for harvest. Wondering why we seemed only to be rolling along through the Saturday afternoon sunshine, I opened the web page that was home to the train’s Wifi system. It included a live map that allowed you to track the progress of the train and showed the current speed. We were ‘rolling’ along at 296 kmh, 24 kmh short of the maximum operational speed of 320 kmh.

It had been such a delightful experience yesterday that I had looked forward to this morning’s return journey. The train was due to depart from Marseilles at 0810. Who would want to be catching a train to anywhere at such a time on a Sunday morning?

The queue for the train was rather longer than it had been yesterday. Looking at my ticket, I saw the seat was ‘bas’ rather than ‘haut’, the view would not be as good. I also noticed that it said ‘famille’, I wasn’t sure what this meant. When booking in March, I had just accepted whatever seats I had been allocated, travelling alone, what did it matter where I sat?

Finding seat No 38 in Carriage No 17 on the train which had the final destination of Mannheim in Germany, I found it was indeed a family seat. Beside me was a young mother with a baby, opposite her sat her husband, and opposite me sat Laurelle.

I struggled along in my schoolboy French until the mother revealed she had studied engineering at an English university, at which point I thought I could stop my destruction of the language . Laurelle, however, wanted to continue in French because Laurelle was six years old.

‘Apprends tu l’anglais?’ she asked me.

‘Mais, oui,’ her father laughed.

‘Je parle anglais,’ I replied, ‘Et toi?’

Laurelle was just beginning to learn English at school. It was refreshing to discover that she had not grown up on a diet of English language television.

Laurelle told me about her school and about her teacher, whom she liked. She told me that she liked living in Marseilles and asked me what Dublin was like.

She asked me my name, ‘Ian, I replied, ‘en francais, Jean.’ Thereafter she prefaced each question with, ‘Jean.’

‘Jean, quel age as-tu?’ She thought sixty-one was a very old age to be.

She told me about the red plastic Disney figure she carried with her. I had no clue to the name of the character in English, so would have had no chance of identifying it in French. She showed me her Disney colouring book and offered a lengthy explanation as to why she was colouring the tree trunks in one picture purple.  I muttered ‘oui’ at what seemed to be appropriate moments, hoping that I was not saying that I hoped her character would be eaten by a dragon or run over by a spaceship.

An alarming moment came. Laurelle’s mother had gone with the baby in one direction, her father then stood up and went in the other direction. I was riding in a train at one hundred and eighty miles per hour with a six year old French girl who greatly overrated my ability to understand what she was saying.

Then there came a realisation that this was probably one of the greatest achievements to which I might ever have aspired. Parents prepared to entrust their six year old daughter  to the supervision of ‘le professeur.’ (I love the way the French accord their teachers such a title). To be a complete stranger and to be thus trusted brought a smile.

Laurelle appeared not to notice the absence of her parents. She explained in detail the colour scheme she was going to use for one of the Disney pictures. There was to be a lot of ‘marron’, brown, I think. I wondered why there had not been more brown used for the trees.

We pulled into Lyon and went our separate ways. I wished them well as they walked towards the platform where a train bound for the Gare de Lyon in Paris stood waiting.

Never before in my life have I attempted to speak so much French. It was a lesson, if one were needed, that immersion is far more effective than classroom lessons

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