Authors: Emma Beddington
We’ll Always Have
Trying and Failing to Be French
To my mother
Méfiez-vous de Paris
De ses rues, d’son ciel gris
Beware of Paris
Of its streets, its grey sky
‘Méfiez-vous de Paris’ by Jean Renoir
(originally performed by Léo Marjane in
Elena et les Hommes
Paris, plus vague de l’Océan, miroitait donc aux yeux d’Emma dans une atmosphère vermeille.
So Paris, vaster than the ocean, glittered in Emma’s eyes with a rosy glow.
At the age of sixteen, I decide what I want to be when I grow up: French.
Being sixteen has little to recommend it, other than not being fifteen any more. On Saturday lunchtimes, puffed up with our own daring, my best friend Alex and I and a group of sundry social
C-listers from school can at least now go to the only pub in York that serves shifty teenagers, no questions asked. There we linger over a half of lager, watching The Bee Gees on the video jukebox,
observed impassively by the elderly gentlemen who make up the remainder of the Brewer’s Arms’ clientele. This forms a significant new strand of our social life, hitherto limited to
listening to Radio 1 in one or other of our bedrooms, loitering in McDonalds or Rough Trade records, trying on clothes in River Island and eating all the free samples of cake from under the plastic
cloche in Bettys tearoom. Boredom hangs around us like a low mist on the River Ouse. My attempts to launch York Youth CND have foundered on a combination of ideological differences and inertia and
the members of Wind Band, in which I play the clarinet badly, are even further down the school pecking order than I am. I am too chicken to go to Leeds, which we view as the acme of civilization,
and even if I went, I would not know what to do when I got there.
Mainly, I mope in my bedroom reading and listening to The Smiths, much as I did at fifteen. When my moping infuriates my mother to the point where she tries to suggest unpalatably worthy
occupations for me (‘if you’re so bored, you could volunteer at the nursing home down the road?’ she suggests several times and I roll my eyes in disgust), I trudge down to school
to sit in the library and read there instead. And it is here that I encounter French
for the first time.
No one has a satisfactory explanation of how a boys’ Quaker boarding school that has only recently admitted girls has ended up with a subscription to French
Librarian insurrection? It’s not an overtly Quaker place in some ways, though: the music teacher thumps out Hymns Ancient and Modern at the grand piano instead of silent worship on Friday
mornings (‘Jerusalem’, ‘Dear Lord and Father’, ‘Immortal, Invisible’) and most of the pupils are farmers’ kids from the Vale of Wetherby, not real Quakers.
Whatever the reason, French
’s incongruous candy-coloured cover with a photograph of a pretty girl draws my eye one afternoon in the mock Tudor-beamed, wood-panelled library and
I take a copy off the rack, and start to read. Having flicked through the first copy with growing interest, I go back, find several more, and sit down to give them my full attention.
Much of French
is impenetrable to me. I do not know who the people in the articles are: authors, politicians or actresses. Almost everyone the magazine interviews does something
barre au sol
’, which bemuses me (a bar on the ground? How is this exercise? It sounds like going over trotting poles on the fat Shetland pony at the riding school in
Escrick) and everyone is
(blooming, says the dictionary) or becoming an
of something (a muse?), which I don’t really understand. The
magazine also tends to talk about ‘
’ as if it were a needy houseplant requiring constant attention. I concentrate initially on the make-up and fashion pages, which are
full of desirable items you cannot find in Browns department store (I know because I write them down, and go and check). But my interest is piqued and I find I want to know more.
stories about lipstick, sex and film stars, but also about literature and philosophy and politics. The film stars interviewed about their latest romantic comedies will discuss serious, abstract
topics without any awkwardness. Sometimes they discuss facial serums, Victor Hugo and their relationship with their fathers in the same sentence and no one thinks this is unusual. Sex is
ever-present, but not in the way it is ever-present in the hormonal fug of the lower sixth common room. In French
it is discussed seriously, and in depth. Indeed it is apparent quite
quickly that pleasure of all kinds is a serious business in
: food, sex, culture or bath oils. The founding fathers of Quakerism would not have approved.
I fall in love with the world portrayed in French
over my seventeenth year, from the
bûche de Noël
taste tests in winter to the ‘
’ diets in summer and all points in between, rushing to the library each Thursday to read the new edition. In the world French
presents, you are allowed to be
interested, without any apparent contradiction, in books, films and politics, men, éclairs and pretty bras and this is what I want; this is what, without really realizing it, I have been
aspiring to. No one in French
is embarrassed or apologetic, while I am one or the other all the time, and often both at once. Finally, there seems to be a destination at the other
side of this mortifying trudge through a North Yorkshire adolescence: France.
I am not necessarily predisposed to fall in love with France. We have a French memory card game with pictures of typically French scenes and items, so initially France for me is the frustrating
search for the second picture of Nougat de Montelimar and trying to snatch the wheels of Brie before my mother on wet afternoons. We go there on holiday sometimes, long queasy hot car journeys, me
vomiting in lay-bys, my father getting tetchy. On one trip my mother becomes so enraged with me and my half-brother that she orders us horse steak just so she can tell us about it years later and
watch our reaction. Another time, on a tense extended family holiday, I get locked in the loo of a draughty gîte in Brittany for a whole afternoon and have to be humiliatingly released by the
local handyman. During another teenage summer, my father rents, very cheaply, a decaying chateau with a stuffed bear: the attic is full of relics of the German occupying officers, fly larvae
wriggle under the wallpaper and the stagnant pond in the garden is full of dying frogs. Later, we go to Lot-et-Garonne and I try to sunbathe topless lying in the garden listening to awful Europop,
ending up horribly burnt, while my sister gets bitten by an adder and has to go to hospital. The consolation for all our many minor disasters and disappointments in France is always the same: cake.
Before I fall in love with French
I fall hard for French cake,
pains aux raisins
and pretty raspberry tartlets and wobbly, trembling
topped with plump apricot
I have also suffered under the yoke of French lessons from a friend of my mother’s, a semiotics lecturer. The lessons, I am later given to understand, were less intended for my benefit
than hers (she needed the extra income). This makes sense, since they were no fun at all for me. The semioticist would wait in the playground to collect me from school one afternoon a week, a thin,
rather forbidding figure whose presence did not scream of roaring good times. She would escort me to a nearby café and attempt to drill into me the basics: my name, my age, did I have any
pets, colours, cheerless songs in which some chickens would go to a field and then return or puppets would turn around three times and leave. I dreaded everything about these strained and awkward
afternoons – it was plain even to me that her heart was not in it – except the cake I was allowed to choose to accompany our conversation. A serial quitter of extra-curricular
activities that inconvenienced my minutely planned schedule of reading the Famous Five and pretending to be a horse, I petitioned hard to be allowed to give up; eventually my mother acquiesced.
‘She sat at Derrida’s feet!’ she protested when I remonstrated with her many years later, as if this in some way reinforced the semioticist’s credentials for teaching me
to count to twenty.
Now, in secondary school, I am good at French, but the lessons are indescribably dreary and uninspiring. Our teacher, Madame Cockroft – the French faculty is mainly composed of French
women with Yorkshire names, exiled in our misty shire for love – is a great fan of repetitive written and oral exercises and we spend hours each week conjugating irregular verbs, agreeing our
adjectives and asking each other about our ailments. I have chosen French A-level more because I am good at it than because I enjoy it, and the dreary drills and exercises continue. There is a
token element of ‘culture’, but this has been largely limited to learning the location of the power stations of Haute-Normandie, studying Norman cheese production and watching a couple
of grainy videos about the port of Le Havre. Our other French teacher, Monsieur Collins, who seems to be permanently teetering on the brink of a nervous breakdown, sometimes reads us poetry, de
Vigny and Verlaine, but we just find this embarrassing, a pink-cheeked Irish man getting misty-eyed about sepia-tinted men in frock coats. ‘
Seul le silence est grand
declaims, tremulously. ‘
Tout le reste est faiblesse
.’ This is at least appropriate for a Quaker school, but it doesn’t exactly speak to us.
Occasionally, however, the French A-level group is herded to City Screen, York’s sole art-house cinema, to watch films starring Gérard Depardieu. All French films in the late 1980s
and 1990s seem to feature Gérard Depardieu in some capacity, as if without him they would not be fully French. His face becomes inseparably associated with French culture to us as we watch
him fall in love with his secretary to a soundtrack of Schubert Impromptus (
Trop Belle Pour Toi
), recite verse with a prosthetic nose (
Cyrano de Bergerac
) and reminisce about
playing a viol in a curly wig (
Tous Les Matins du Monde
). ‘He is not handsome,’ says Madame Lofthouse (another of our Yorkshire–French teachers) thoughtfully, during our
conversation sessions after these films, ‘
he has something.’
On our own, my best friend Alex and I go and see
, in which a much younger Gérard – who indisputably ‘has something’ at this point – wears
extravagant flares and has arousing, alarming sex with strange women who apparently find him and his co-star Patrick Dewaere irresistible. We like
Les Nuits Fauves
best, because the
director and principal actor Cyril Collard is beautiful, bisexual and tragic and because there is lots of sex and drama. The rumoured ménage à trois in
Jules et Jim
Gérard in this one) is a bitter disappointment in contrast (what on earth is even going on? We are mystified), but I do add a postcard of a still from the film – Jeanne Moreau running
across the bridge in her chic, oversized man’s sweater, baggy trousers and charcoal moustache – to the mosaic of moody black and white Robert Doisneau and Cartier-Bresson shots above my
desk. At home with my mum and stepfather we watch
Au Bout de Souffle
and I ignore the plot entirely to fantasize about walking through Paris with a pixie cut and Capri pants and kissing
the cop-killing rogue Jean-Paul Belmondo’s lubricious, Jagger-esque lips. Because not only do I want to
French, my sexual orientation is now firmly French. I lust after Belmondo,
and Alain Delon, after Daniel Auteuil, Vincent Lindon and
era Depardieu (though I draw the line at Jean Rochefort).