28 October 2010


I'm not doing a very good job of staying off my feet, to let the sprained ankle heal. It's hard for me to sit still for long. The pain is minimal now, and the swelling has really gone down, so I am concentrating on not injuring myself again. When I do sit for a while, I keep that foot elevated.

Yesterday, however, I needed to go to the laboratoire d'analyses in Saint-Aignan to have some blood work done, in advance of an appointment with my doctor this morning. It's a regularly scheduled appointment, not specifically related to the sprained ankle.

Walt needed to walk the dog at first light, which is at about 8:15, yesterday, and that's also the hour when the laboratory opens for business. I decided to drive myself down there. It's only about three miles, and there's no traffic. There's only one stop sign and one stoplight on the route, and usually the stoplight is just flashing yellow. Yesterday morning I didn't have to stop for it at all.

The problem turned out to be that the lab, which is right on the river close to the Grand Hôtel, was crowded. There are three parking spaces, and all three were taken. Two cars were parked at the curb — up on the sidewalk, actually, straddling the curb. You know how they park in France. There was no place right in front of the lab for me to leave the car, so I had to turn into the narrow streets of old Saint-Aignan and look for a space.

I found one, and it wasn't too far but was farther than I really wanted to walk. No matter. I hobbled down the street back to the lab, checked in, and sat down in the last available chair in the waiting room. After a few minutes, it was my turn to go down the hall to the rooms where they draw patients' blood.

The woman who "occupied herself of me," as they say in French, was a gray-haired lady of about my age. She sat me down and then read my paperwork. « Monsieur Broadhurst. Charles, » she said. She pronounced Broadhurst with a pretty good English-sounding accent. She seemed confident. I can't remember whether she said Charles the English way or the French way.

I pulled up my sweatshirt sleeve and she started to fasten the tourniquet around my upper arm. I asked her (in French) if the sleeve was pulled up high enough. It's not in the way, she said. Then she looked at me and said, in French (she never actually spoke English): "With a name like that, you must be brittanique." American, I told her. But with British ancestors.

"Oh, American. That explains the fact that you've taken the trouble to learn to speak French," she said. British people, including many of those who come to live in France, notoriously have limited or non-existent abilities when it comes to la langue française.

It's strange to me that Americans have such a different reputation among the French people. I've heard such comments before. Remember, the British are the traditional "enemies" — of the French. It goes back to 1066 and William the Conqueror as we call him. He was called William the Bastard back then, but by the French (or Normands) not especially by the Anglo-Saxons. King William I of England, he became.

Americans are no better than the British at learning foreign languages. That's indisputable fact. (The French aren't any better, I might add, though that might be changing with the younger generations.) However, there are many fewer Americans in France than Brits, and maybe a greater number of the Americans who come here, including Walt and me, are people who have already developed their language skills. Fact is, Walt started learning French when he was 12, and I started at 14. I have two university degrees in French language and literature.

I worked in Paris, Rouen, and Metz for about 8 years in the 1970s. I taught French in Illinois and in California, for several years in each place, at the university level. I worked as a translator in Washington DC for several years. I'm a weird animal. French and France became my way of life. Hell, I even like French pop music, and Walt and I both have found it a great way to learn French pronunciation and expressions. Most British people I know turn up their noses at "that awful excuse for music" that they hear on the radio in France.

The fact is, too, that an American can't get in an automobile and drive to France. Okay, there's a ferry boat or a train through a tunnel to take, but it's an easy trip for a Brit compared to the long flight an American has to take to get to France. And once you're here, as an American, you are a very long way from home. It's expensive to go back. The jet lag can be a killer. You can't easily go home for just a few days.

You can't ask tourists to learn the language of every country they might want to visit. In most countries, nowadays, enough people speak enough English (especially in the cities) to help anglophone tourists get by, and many tourists from many other countries speak some or even very good English too. But from there to thinking you can "up sticks" and move to France without speaking any French is a very long leap.

My personal view is that British people who come to live in France are not so much arrogant about language — as many French people probably think — as naive. They think they will do fine. After a few years, they must think, they will have learned some French and will be speaking it well enough, if not fluently. Would that it were so easy. They don't come here because they love France and the French. They come for the warmer, sunnier climate and the low cost of real estate. Or out of some sense of adventure.

Learning a new language takes concentrated effort, a willingness to make a lot of mistakes and feel silly, and a lot of hard work. It's easy to get discouraged. During the learning process, at times you feel you are making amazing progress, but at other times you feel like you are stagnating and will never get any further. Let me say that I do know many British people who live here and who have learned to speak French, but also many who don't. It's not genetic.

I told the technician at the lab that my ancestors left the British Isles in the 1700s, as far as I know, and that both sides of my family have been in America long enough not to have any known British relations. "Did they go over on the Mayflower," she asked me in French. I'm sure I chuckled. No, I said. I guess I don't really know.

She asked me if my family name had a meaning in English. I told her it does. A "hurst" is a wooded hillside in old English, I told her. And "broad" means wide. It was obvious that she didn't know the word "broad" in English, so I told her that Broadway — a term all French people know — means la large voie, the "wide street," for example. She seemed to think that was interesting.

I also told her that, while I've been to England a few times, I don't really know much about the country. Once when I went there, about 15 years ago, I spent a few days looking at maps and driving around to see if I could find Broadhurst as a place name anywhere. I couldn't. In the research I did, though, I read somewhere that there was a Broadhurst prison over there.

« Une prison juste pour notre famille ! » I told her. « Vous imaginez ? »


  1. Nice post, I think you have it right about learning a "foreign" language.
    About William the Bastard, though, remember back then words had a different meanings than they do today. He was called "the Bastard" because he was a bastard. He was of an illegitimate birth and thus unable to succeed to any rule. That's why he invaded England, he could become King.

  2. I hate to admit it, but there is a social anxiety about a lot of British people that would rather be thought too arrogant to learn a language than accept the embarrassment of making mistakes. And there are French people who are none too shy about letting you know when you have.

  3. Autolycus, I agree with you about French people who are eager to correct your French. They mean well, I guess. You just have to get past that.

    Pete, yes, William was a bastard in the literal sense of the word.

  4. I enjoy your posts very much. Thank you. I think the prison you refer to in England is Broadmoor rather than Broadhurst and it is actually a hospital for the criminally insane. (By the way I am English, have a holiday home in France and try very hard to improve my French language skills so that I may better converse with my neighbours in La France which I love for deeper reasons than simply sunnier weather and cheap real estate!).Keep up the good work. I am new to your blog but enjoy it very much.

  5. Ken, keep that foot raised! I enjoyed reading this posting. Having struggled with learning French for several years, I do find it much easier to read than to understand when a Frenchman is rattling off too quickly. It is a constant challenge. I am fluent in German and at my age, I just don't think there is much room for another language. I do appreciate when you use French words in your blog. It is a learning experience. Now, please spell the name of your town phonetically so that I can finally get it right. Thanks.

  6. I hope your ankle heals quickly, but like Susan said, "keep that foot raised". That way you can share your thoughts with us.

    I very much enjoy your readers' comments and our conversations here.

    As for language studies- some people have a gift for languages just like math or science. I suppose anyone can learn to speak another language, but they must develop the gift by hard work. You and Walt were lucky to have started at a young age and kept your eyes on the prize.

  7. Ken your comments hit the mark. During our recent visit to France I lived with my dictionary and made every effort to connect, perhaps in some small way. Often once I explained that I was Australian and apologised for my poor French the response was greatly improved. I appreciate that each of us favours our own native language but courtesy suggests that we should try; especially as a visitor to a country. I liked it when some attempted to assist me to correctly pronounce what I had attempted to say or request. However, I don't know why so many people that we met in France thought that Stephen and I were from Italy. After 32 hours door to door I am home again in Australia.

  8. You commented before on that same subject. As I was reading "le jardin de Lucie" and her wonderful observations, I though it was too bad she didn't have it translated in english too, but why should she?
    The only time I visited a country without learning the language, I felt horrible (Portuguese). Even pronouncing names of cities or sites correctly would have been a blessing. But if you live in a country, even part time, there are no excuses for not learning the language of your host country.

  9. Paul and I had two French language encounters which gave us the impression that the French were not as imaginative at understanding others as Americans (who may have more experience at this. But probably French have more experience now than they did in 1974. We also thought they had a bad rap about unfriendliness to Americans.

    While visiting Paris for Easter weekend someone in a truck hit our car which was parked. When we returned a very excited shoe repairman rushed out to explain to Paul what had happened and give him the license plate number and rental company involved. It took a long long time to understand one another, but he really wanted to help us. And in the end, the company repaired our car for free, so we didn't have to deal with an international insurance claim (we were living in Germany at the time). And they helped us locate a friend in Paris who had been in grad school with Paul.

    The other experience was on an island in Algonquin Provincial Park in the 80s when a French couple who claimed to know no English at all were forced ashore during a bad storm. We struggled to remember our college French and invited them into our tent for tea...For days after they left we kept thinking of things we MIGHT have said if only we'd remembered them in time!

    Most people in my family are bi or trilingual and some know many more languages. Hungarians pretty much have to learn other languages. Not that many people are going to learn theirs, though that is changing.

    I'm not Hungarian, but I learned it, partly motivated by the fact that on those rare occasions when my husband talked in his sleep, that is what he spoke.

    Autolycus is right, but it is many more people than just the Brits who don't want to be seen making mistakes. You have to be willing to look like a fool to learn another language, I think.

    There seems to be a Broadhurst green somewhere in the midlands, BTW.

  10. Ken, as a Brit I find your observations slightly uncomfortable but sadly probably true. I cringe when I hear fellow second-homers admit they hardly speak any French at all, even though they have "lived" in France for years.

    I think you are right, it seems to be an easier move to France for the Brits but perhaps the lack of committment is what sends a lot of them back to the UK after a few years. You have to love France warts and all to live there full-time, I think.

    Personally we are trying our utmost to learn to communicate effectively with the French, by learning the language and trying to understand the way they think, but it's definitely not easy. We just can't wait for the day when we can call it quits at home and move to our little village forever.

    Frustratingly, we seem to have slipped into the ex-pat society very easily, which we are very happy about as it means we have so many friends there now, but less easily into French society. Maybe that's inevitable as we are only there part-time. Our only contact with the French locals is with our neighbours and the shopkeepers etc, but at least it's a start. They certainly appreciate our efforts in speaking French and often comment that we have made some progress, but you are also right that getting over the embarrassment is not easy and the French can sometimes be slightly snooty about our mistakes.

  11. Interesting discussion. In the 70's, when I spent significant time in France, my French went from sorely lacking (eventhough I had studied it in school) to pretty darn good. But I was afraid of making mistakes (both grammatical and pronunciation).

    Now, my French is quite rusty due to lack of use, but I enjoy trying to speak French when I'm in France (or when I encounter French-speaking people outside of France).

    I find the French happy that I make the effort. To me, this is a happy combination of me no longer being afraid to make mistakes and the French being more accepting of the mistakes I make. And I am thankful, not embarrassed, when corrected. I find, however, that I am often not corrected unless I catch myself making a mistake and ask for help.

    I do make an effort to learn at least "please", "thank you", "yes", "no" in the language of the countries I visit. Just feels like the right thing to do.

  12. Ken, by the time I read the end of this blog, I was LAUGHING OUT LOUD (LOL)! I loved your thought about the prison just for Broadhursts...
    I started learning french at 14, too. If only there had been an opportunity for an earlier start, I'm sure my Mom would have made it possible. I have never stopped trying to either absorb more or take classes. As an adult it is so much more difficult to practice and keep up with all of the vocab.

    My travels have concentrated on France, Germany and Italy. My last trip included England and Belgium. France is always a brief visit to all of my trips! Before Italy I took a semester of Italian and I was able to live in Germany for 3 years and of course, I took a class there to help me adjust. Visiting a foreign land with a foreign language is so exhilerating for me that I want to get the most out of it - which for me included interactions with the locals in their tongue.

    Keep us updated on your ankle! You are a trouper for walking to the clinic. I thought for sure you were going to write that you continued back to the house to get Walt!!!

  13. Oh, yes, another phrase that I ALWAYS learn in a foreign language:
    "Where's the bathroom?"

  14. Ken, I fully agree with your observations... as a mature British person a year or so younger than yourself, I find adding new vocab. quite difficult. I am good at reading French. Why? Because my schooling was framed so that I understood "Johnny Foreigner" but didn't need to reply... the poorest approach possible.
    However, all is not lost; before Pauline and I moved here I started spoken French lessons... this has helped my confidence... but what is taught is not really suitable for someone coming to live here, it is aimed more at the visitor.
    Pauline speaks very good French, which helps, but once we are in the new bit I intend to take lessons locally from someone who teaches ONLY spoken French.
    The Touraine people are very helpful - and they speak slowly and clearly... one of our neighbours always reframes a question or comment if he thinks I haven't understood... which often gives me a way to reply. Our local French community is always eager to help those who are willing to learn and be corrected.

  15. All I'm saying, I think, is that people who move to France with the idea of living here long term need to make a good-faith effort to learn French. Don't put it off. Don't give in to discouragement. You don't have to be fluent.

    But don't do as one English guy I know does and just boldly speak English to the clerk at SuperU, expecting her to deal with it. That's how French people might get the idea you're a little arrogant.

    You'll feel better about yourself and be a happier expat if you know you are really trying. Making progress will give you a lot of satisfaction.


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