A Knight’s Tale (90: More Successful With Written Than With Oral French)

In September 1982 we spent a couple of weeks at the Vachettes’ chateau at Fontaine in Normandy.

This is the garden in which Jessica basks in a deckchair with Arnoux, Marie-Helene, and the Vachette parents. As can be seen by the colour of the grass this was a very hot autumn.

Lying at Jessica’s feet

is Louisa in her carrycot;

The Vachettes were a kind of adoptive foster parents to Jessica, who was truly bilingual.  We sometimes visited them in Paris and Normandy thirty to forty years ago.  At mealtimes I was always given the place of honour at the right hand of Madame Vachette, a delightful woman who, like her husband, didn’t speak English.  That excruciating shadow flickering across her face often vied with an uncomprehending smile.  I would feel like Edward Heath, our Prime Minister from 1970 – 1974, whose execrable French accent was rather a joke.  My grasp of the written word, then as now, was far more comfortable.  I would help son-in-law Louis with the Paris Match cryptic crossword.  Sometimes I would decipher an answer which he said didn’t exist.  I felt very smug when I pressed him to consult the Petit Robert dictionary and there it was.  The one game of Scrabble I played with Jessica and Monsieur Vachette gave me an even greater satisfaction.  This kind and generous man told me I could play, on his French board, in English, whilst the others used the appropriate language.  My pride, especially once I had seen the different letter values, would not allow me to accept this.  Those magical creatures known, to my on-line Scrabble friends, as the ’tile fairies’ were kind to me that day.  I won.  I’m not sure I was ever forgiven.

M. Vachette was fond of telling jokes. He had such a dialect accent that his own children could not understand these stories. So they laughed where necessary. I was too proud to do this so I kept asking him to repeat sentences. After about 6 attempts I laughed. This took place in the parental Paris flat where we walked on beams from the Napoleonic era.

1n 1983 we enjoyed another holiday with the Vachettes.

By then Louisa was toddling and drinking from her own indestructible cup. Here she stands, ebullient as ever, displaying  her baby teeth, in the carved wooden doorway of this splendid eighteenth century building.

We also stayed with Marie-Hélene and Arnoux just outside Paris. The eldest of the siblings, Marie-Hélene, was as fluent in English as was Jessica in French. Arnoux was at my level. Nevertheless we enjoyed our mutual wordplay.

My most successful bilingual pun was coined on a visit to the Le Marais (marsh) area of Paris, beneath which flow the underground sewers. I commented that it was interesting that these were under a “bog”. For those readers who do not know that bog is one name for a toilet in England I should explain that our female friend got the joke immediately.

One day I was describing to Arnoux a woman I had seen with a ” jupe” (skirt) around her neck. She was in fact wearing a scarf (un foulard). This time the laugh was on me. I got my own back when our friend pointed out the “mosquito” of Paris, which was in fact a mosque.


  1. “In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making them understand their own language.”, Mark Twain – ‘The Innocents Abroad’

  2. I can tell these are fond memories, and the photos are delightful–I love that little foot sticking out of the basket. The family and their homes are amazing. I think maybe you discussed the one in Paris in another post?
    I would not have gotten the joke of bog. 😀

      1. Hmm. . .well, if we both seem to remember it, it must be there somewhere. 😀 If it’s the same place, I think I remember asking you what happened to it during WWII? But maybe it’s a different place, or I’m making it up, or. . .

  3. Word play is always fun; bilingual word play can be hilarious. As English-speaking South Africans we have great fun literally translating Afrikaans words. A few examples: a porcupine = iron pig; your brother-in-law = your heavy; the Great Trek = the Big Pull 🙂

  4. I’ve made a bi-lingual pun in Spanish a time or two, but I can assure you it was wholly accidental. I’m impressed by your willingness to dive in despite great fluency. It can be a challenge, for sure. There are times when I’m certain the Cajun tugboat captains on our waterways are speaking a different language, even though they swear it’s English!

  5. These are wonderful memories, Derrick, and those photos of Louisa are adorable, especially the little head sticking up out of the basket like kitten! ❤️

  6. I had once dabbled with French (and Russian too) during my university days but failed to get any proficiency whatsoever mostly due to lack of focus and flitting between the two. Mainly, I was intending to read their classics in the original tongue. I suspect there is a point in one’s life beyond which mastering a foreign language becomes impossible.

    That was a humorous narration of your verbal sparring with the French and the victories scored!

  7. Beautiful Louisa! 🙂
    What wonderful people and beautiful memories, Derrick!
    Ha! I got the giggles reading about the word play you shared!
    Words and their spellings and meanings bring joy to me…I love word games and learning new words, puns, witty phrases, etc.,. from people of all languages. 🙂 When my family is together board games, including Scrabble, always bring the fun! And in between those times, I do word puzzles and play Scrabble games online. 🙂
    (((HUGS))) 🙂

    1. Thank you very much, Carolyn. I used to play Scrabble on line, but stopped when it was taken over and overnight we lost both our records and the friendships we had made. I turned to Lexulous. Do you play that?

      1. Oh, that’s discouraging Derrick, about losing your Scrabble records and friends. I started playing “Words with Friends” which is Scrabble online with my mom and my father in law about 2 years ago. It’s a lovely way to stay in touch. I never heard of Lexulous.

        1. I think the name of the new company was something like Matel. Many people objected to the cut off and formed a protest group. I am so cynical as to not bother because I knew nothing would change.

  8. There is a funny story in one of Gavin Maxwell’s books about picking up a French/Moroccan friend, who asked about mosca, having heard of the notorious black flies in Scotland. Maxwell misinterpreted this as a question about churches–mosque in the general parlance where the friend was from–and replied that there were three, on the outside of town…Naturally, his friend began to look at him oddly and it took more talk to straighten out.

    1. I’m pleased, Dolly. I don’t know if you have ever read Finnegan’s Wake, but with your breadth of languages you’d make a better fist of it than I did. Thanks very much

      1. I could never decide whether Finnegan’s Wake was more or less deconstructional than Ulisses, but at least both are (more or less) in English, contrary to Nabokov’s Ada, peppered throughout with French which I do not know. I remember calling a French-speaking friend on every page.

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