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.