There are many skills I regret not having: the ability to sing or play a musical instrument was one I felt especially keenly when I was a teenager and dreamed of rock stardom. Then there are other skills I regret not pursuing with greater enthusiasm or dedication, at the top of which is my utter inability to speak any foreign language. Like most British folk I learned French and German at school. Like most British folk I dropped those subjects at the first opportunity. Then, like most British folk, I went to France and Germany on business and/or pleasure and felt an utter buffoon for not being able to say a single word to the locals beyond 'hello', 'please' and 'thanks'. Even that was a struggle. I remember once failing to say 'Merci' for a cup of coffee at a French service station, instead making a strange, cow-like noise that baffled everyone.
Well, I've decided to stop whingeing and finally do something about it. A fortnight today I am attending this rather exciting festival in the South of France. I'm looking forward to it immensely. However, I only accepted the invitation once it was understood that my French was abysmal. I felt ashamed having to make that declaration, but I was assured that I would have a translator with me for any panels or discussions. But it was the final straw, or, as the French might say, c'est la fin des petits pois.
Stung by having to admit that I couldn't even speak schoolboy French - pre-school French would be more accurate, if a pre-schooler also knew to ask for a light for a cigarette and a glass of beer - I bought Michel Thomas' French course. For those of you who don't know him, Thomas was a Holocaust survivor, who then went on to pioneer a method of teaching foreign languages that have become known around the world. They work, or at least the French one does, on the basis that half the words in the English language are French anyway, and builds on them. There is no memorising, no writing and no revising - just listening, saying and, hopefully, absorbing.
I have to admit to being pretty sceptical when the CDs arrived. But lo and behold, I popped the first one in and the next hour or so flew by. I don't how much absorbing I did, but the startling thing was just how much I enjoyed it. Of course, life itself is a lesson and we learn something new every day blah blah blah, but I had completely forgotten the sheer joy that comes through learning. The tapes are designed to give you a sense of progression, and even feature two other students being taught by Michel, who are guaranteed to be even more stupid than you and make you feel dead clever. I had also completely forgotten the exhilaration of feeling of superior to a couple of thickies. It didn't last. By tape three they've caught me up. I've even developed an irrational hatred for the smarmy male student - oh look at ME with my gallic accent and pats on the back from Michel - and a vague crush on the female. Indeed, it it is just like being in school again, though minus the acne and anxiety.
I have no idea of what use this will be to me in Frontignan. It may be that when I'm put in front of a real-life French person I crumble and end up with my strange cow sounds. Though I doubt it. While I'll still need my translator to help me discuss the intricacies of crime fiction with my fellow writers and readers, I'm confident I'll be able to navigate most of my other transactions without having to a) wave my hands and TALK LOUDLY in English with a pointless, offensive French accent or b) mumble something about 'J'ai parle un petit peu de Francais' and turn crimson red.