Though I’d toyed occasionally with the idea of learning French in France, when I committed mentally and financially to a four weeks immersion course almost a year ahead, I knew this was it. When I got the letter on thick white paper and copious brochures from the school, the Institut de Français in Villefranche-sur-mer, just 15 minutes from Nice on the French Riviera, I drank in every tiny detail.
Diplomats go on this course! Former Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam polished his French here! A vice admiral or two was scattered through the list of former students! Perfect. Then, some months before the course, I got the instructions for moving into my small apartment. I was impressed by the efficiency, the professionalism, the total ‘Frenchness’ of it all. Then I saw where I was to pick up the key: Chez Betty, a bar in the main street of Villefranche. Chez Betty? What happened to Monique, or Loulou, or even Pierre?
But Chez Betty is the heart of Villefranche. And it’s run by Betty and more recently, her son Thierry. It’s been here now for over 50 years, as long as the Institut has been offering courses. If there’s a soccer match, this is where the locals gather to cheer – and have several glasses of rosé (a habit we students took up early, with enthusiasm).
As well as being a highly efficient teacher of French, my teacher, Margali, is a flamenco singer - and speaks Spanish, German as well as English. And this course is not simply about getting the verbs right grammatically: there’s also a lot of ‘listen to the music’ of the language with the teacher ‘conducting’ as we sweep through phrases in the day’s session of séance pratique. On the downside, we were fined for straying into English. One euro each time. And homework? Endless.
In the businesses of Villefranche – the cafés, restaurants and shops - there is a quietly amused attitude to students – eleves – as we huddle in cafes and bring our homework, often having sought out another student with a more advanced level of language. We bribe them with a coffee or a glass of wine to help us through the first days of whirling French oblivion. After a purchase, local shopkeepers count out the change obviously and slowly – and if they don’t pick us as students on the first word or two, we have learnt to say ‘repetez lantement, s’il vous plait’ – repeat slowly, PLEASE! And in cafés, we feel a swell of pride when we’ve ordered not only our meal successfully, but ‘un boire’ as well.
At the end of the course, I got a beautiful Certificat with an impressive red seal, an ongoing love of the country and the language - and a lasting ability to order a glass of rosé in perfect French.
©Jane Sandilands 2023