Learning French - old school books

Old school French books retained from childhood days. They take me back.

Funny to meet your younger self from decades ago by browsing the texts and seeing the fountain pen scrawls in the margins.  To see those words that gave difficulty; a story that took weeks to unravel through class reading and translation; not good enough to read ahead and needing the teacher to explain. 

The damaged spine of the doodled upon French Book 5 suggests that the two-strapped leather satchel that had protected the beginner's books had been replaced by a grown up canvas bag slung carelessly over one shoulder. 

Why did I not take more care with that book?  Was interest starting to wane? And if it was, how did it rekindle?

Oh, I know the answer to that!

In an all boys school, French suddenly became "fab" in order to impress the attractive assistante assigned to us for conversation classes.  And what synchronicity when only half a dozen years later, by then utterly enthused with French, I would be the assistant d'anglais in a school in central France where she was a teacher of English?  Bonjour mademoiselle, vous vous souvenez de moi ?  "Fab"or what?

I wish I had been more solicitous of my notebooks. We used to have slim versions for vocabulary with a vertical centred line.  French words one side, English the other. 

One terrible habit I fell into then was not recording the gender of any new nouns I came across.
Such a mistake.  And using the title of one my old books, let me close this post with une formule :
Meet a new word, learn it with its article.

Saint Émilion Vintage 81

Author's note:

This article was first posted as 24 hours in Saint Émilion on www.cerclefrancaisdebelfast.org in August 2020.  It is a follow up to a post that appeared ten years earlier on francofiled in August 2010. 

Click here for the previous post entitled Saint Émilion - Message in a bottle. 

The plan to spend a night in the medieval town of Saint-Émilion was uncorked some years back. Nearly two decades ago we had been in the town and purchased a special bottle from the 1981 vintage of Château Franc-Pourret to commemorate our wedding year. 

The idea, still not realised, was to crack it open at a special anniversary. It was on checking its current status for drinkability that we noted that the Château offered the opportunity to stay in the heart of the vignoble in highly rated chambre d'hôte accommodation. 

The plan developed its aroma when last September, we arranged to spend a few weeks in France starting in Bordeaux before moving in stages up to Paris. 

What about the Château? Did available dates match? Could we dine there? 
And importantly would we be able to bring the bottle back to its birthplace? 

Contact with Madame OUZOULIAS, Catherine, was simplicity itself.  Demand was always high and yes, she had a room available for one night only – a Sunday; she offered a sumptuous breakfast but no evening meals; and while she liked the idea, she counselled against coming with the bottle of wine thinking that perhaps we had missed its apogée and might enjoy it better at home where it was already well rested! The date matched, no deposit was required and of course we booked!

Trains from Bordeaux to Saint-Émilion are fairly frequent and it's a short journey but last summer there were major works underway at our destination, so we got out at Libourne and made the rest of the journey by coach. The station at 1,5 km is some distance out of the town, a good 20-minute walk, although you can phone a taxi or tuk-tuk service. Catherine, however, had arranged to collect us at the station and bring us to the estate. 

Château Franc-Pourret was an elegant delight and we felt instantly at home. There waiting for us were a couple of half bottles of the property’s wines and one of them was a little relative of the bottle back home! We would toast our arrival later that evening but meantime there was some exploring to be done. 

Catherine suggested that we make our way into the town by strolling through the vines. Our route brought us out near the imposing Tour du Roy and from there we made our way to the unforgettable 12th century Église Monolithe commanding its lovely paved square. 

The association with Émilion started a little earlier though when in the 8th century he left his native Brittany, became a monk and ended in Ascumbas, the ancient and former name of the area. There he lived in a cave and joined by others formed a religious community. After his death in 787, a village was built in his honour and 12 centuries later the town of Saint-Émilion, its vineyards and religious sites have become a UNESCO World Heritage site. 

We had been in this square often before and thought we would savour the memories over a glass of pastis. After all, it was a hot afternoon. Suitably refreshed, we decided we should find somewhere for an evening meal before heading back to Franc-Pourret. Although many restaurants were closed there was plenty of choice and we opted for Chai Pascal.  Calling in, the patronne advised that they wouldn't be serving until 7pm and suggested we book a table. Done. That gave us an hour or more, so still plenty of time to sightsee. 

On our rambles, and not far from the Place de L'Église Monolithe we spotted a sign for a wine merchant - The Wine Buff Experience with Paddy O’Flynn.

While we were looking at the sign a smiling woman, Pilar, asked us if we were Irish and invited us in to meet Paddy. We were treated to a tour of the tasting room, which seemed like a monolith itself carved out of limestone. It was wonderfully cool. 

A taste of Saint-Émilion? Of course. And then a lovely chat with Paddy and Pilar about wines from the region. We arranged to call back the next day and avail of their ordering service.

The meal at Chai Pascal was delicious and we could have sat on, but we had decided to walk it back and night was falling. Not through vineyards at this hour but along the road, using the light from our mobiles to alert passing motorists of our presence. What a lovely feeling to be in wine country at night-time. Yes, that half bottle of Franc-Pourret was waiting. 

Breakfast next morning was a treat, living up to its reputation. A bowl of greengage - reine-claude plums - baked in a crust, an array of cereals, juices, fruits, croissants, homemade jams, organic yoghurt and coffee. Magnificent. 

Our bus connection for the train back to Bordeaux was not until 5pm so we still had a day in Saint-Émilion. Catherine suggested we look around the estate and when our bags were packed, she would store them in her car in the shade. Then later she would come to collect us in town and take us back to the station. We readily agreed and picked as our rendezvous point the car park at the Collegiate Church. This time the stroll through the vines took a different route. Passing château after château it was like walking through a wine list and we arrived directly at our appointed rendezvous spot. Time to appreciate this lovely church and its cloister and learn a little more about Émilion. Quiet. 

Then out again to the town now busy with newly arrived day trippers all making their way to the square. We spotted a shop selling macarons. 

This gourmet tradition dates back to the late 1600s when the sisters of the town’s Ursuline convent confected the recipe from sweet and bitter almonds, sugar and egg whites. We bought some boxes to offer as gifts. 

Another walk around the town, stopping at various points and just soaking it all in. The town has been modernised much over the years and grand hotels now bring a more international style to the spaces they occupy. Still, that medieval heart beats strong. 

A light lunch? Why not? Une omelette complète filled with cheese, ham and mushroom, aided and abetted with crusty bread and helped on its way with a glass of rosé chilled to perfection. 

Back to the Wine Buff, sample some wines and place an order. That's a whole other story but suffice to say that momentous events in our household are accompanied by a bottle taken from the stock ordered that day. And we are still in touch with Paddy and Pilar through social media. 

Where had the day gone? Time to move and await our pickup with Catherine. We went back to the Collegiate Church where we had agreed to meet. She arrived spot on time and took us back to the station. She seemed pleased with the box of macarons as we offered our thanks and goodbyes. We would think of her often and Château Franc-Pourret will be an abiding memory.

And there is of course that bottle that remains from 1981 to be opened… sometime. 

We also brought home a couple of its half-sized relations. No longer a Saint-Émilion alone in its cave.

It's got plenty of company! 


More information

Why not check out some of the posts over at www.cerclefrancaisdebelfast.org ?

Bus stop wine

It was a rare afternoon out with friends. Cafés and restaurants had started to reopen after stringent lockdown measures and safety precautions were much in evidence. The waiting staff at our lunch spot wore masks and were getting used to a new way of meeting, greeting and presenting our food.

We didn't stay long indoors however and instead made our way to a nearby open air terrace which was situated beside a bus stop.

A farewell glass of wine before heading home? Who knows when we'll get out again.

Turns out it was a very public glass of wine.  That bus stop was a busy place with passengers pulling off or putting on masks as buses arrived or departed and others waiting for theirs.

You know how people say they love to sit at a pavement café in Paris or other big city and watch passers-by? Well this time it was the other way round, the passers-by and passengers were people watching us!

The wine we had chosen was a 2016 Louis Latour Pinot Noir from the Domaine de Valmoissine in the Var.  Corona virus hadn't been thought of when those grapes were bottled and while 2016 had disappointed us in other ways this wine was lovely.  Every cloud... 

Inevitably people who knew one or other of our company spotted us and stopped for a socially distanced greeting.  "Well for some!" said an old work colleague and friend who would no doubt have liked to join us but for his bus pulling in to the stop. We raised a glass as he headed home.

Too public!  Next time we'll take the train, eschewing the bus stop for the station. 

A dégu-station !

Simple pleasures


La Fête des Pères and an after dinner browse with Julia Child's My Life in France.  There's a celebratory taste of another indomitable spirit, that special cognac - the 1738 from Rémy Martin.  Music in the background too, French of course as it's also La Fête de la Musique in France and there's a lovely playlist working its magic.

Life's simple pleasures à la française.  Bonne Fête !

Carnet Clairefontaine

My little battered Clairefontaine carnet definitely stood the test of time but now all of its pages are used up.

It was a delight to use as the pen just seemed to glide over its weight of paper with virtually no "bleedthrough" of ink.

Bleedthrough? That means that each of the 96 pages, made from 48 sheets of doubled and stapled paper, could be fully used with no ghosting of writing showing through from the other side of the page.  I hate it when that happens; I like each new page to be pristine.

Douceur de l'écriture  - Papier velouté - are the marketing descriptions for the product and the paper does have that soft, velvety touch that makes writing a pleasure especially with a fountain pen.

Looking through it now and checking the items noted there the thing that strikes me is just how serviceable it was - contact details, numbers and emails; flight references and booking codes; quotes and books to read; meeting plans, agenda and follow-ups; vocabulary items and even diary style entries in appreciation of a nice meal or restaurant.

Clearly it travelled a lot so perhaps that had to do with its portability, the compact size making it convenient to carry.

It has a larger sibling which is part of Clairefontaine's 1951 Retour aux sources (back to basics) series. I use that one for a different purpose and it's not a daily carry round. I keep it for taking notes on French talks I've attended or drafts of blogposts and with squared pages it's very French...

1951.  Hmm.  Birth year and one of my favourite brands of pastis.


Puzzle : La Joconde


Yes this puzzle brings back a memory and makes me smile.
I did it once before - although that's not strictly true as in a sense I didn't quite complete it, someone else did.

It was back in 1974 and I was living then in Vierzon, renting a room from a propriétaire on the outskirts of the town. There wasn't much to do in the evenings and one way of passing the time I decided was to tackle a jigsaw.  A good sized one mind you, at least 1000 pieces.

Thanks to the local librairie I was able to to get a puzzle of La Joconde, Leonardo Da Vinci's Mona Lisa and it turned out to be a labour of love. I hadn't at that stage seen the original in the Louvre and when I did it struck me as smaller than I expected.  All the same I got to know those brush strokes fairly well and the background?  Well there's a lot of detail there too.  Jigsaws are a great way to appreciate a work of art.

And as for the smile?  Getting there.

My efforts with the puzzle were a great source of conversation with my landlady who remarked progress on a daily basis.  She commented the knowing approval of the femme de ménage as she observed the work move to completion.

And then?

After many painstaking hours over several evenings there remained one piece.  I am sure that it was a portion of the nose.  I decided that I wouldn't snap it into place and instead left it to the side.

It stayed there for quite a while until one day Madame La Propriétaire met me at the doorway on my return home. Monsieur Christopher should know that the femme de ménage could restrain herself no longer and felt moved to insert the remaining piece! Apologies all round but the poor lady was clearly  exasperated to see the puzzle completed.

I hadn't left the piece out to bother anyone and it wasn't bothering me. Patience is a virtue, found in no man but in every woman except of course for the femme de ménage.

The incident made me smile then and still does.

So here I am again, nearly 45 years on with a new version of the puzzle.  1000 pieces.
Time to get reacquainted with a masterpiece.

Will I leave out a piece to be inserted by someone checking my progress?

Of course I will. Serves them right for being nosey.

Quand mon verre est vide..

Quand mon verre est vide, je le plains,
Quand mon verre est plein, je le vide.
    Raoul PONCHON

Have always loved this simple jeu de mots, word play. Literally when my glass is empty I feel sorry about that. When it's full, I empty it.
Within moderation of course.

L'amour n’égale pas la mort

There are reports that domestic abuse in France has risen by almost one third in these times of confinement. Sadly, that is probably the case in other countries.
Stop. For good!
Love doesn't equal death.
l’amour n’égale pas la mort

La cigale chante

Want one of these! A mechanical cicada that makes that nostalgic sound characteristic of warm summer evenings in the south of France.
It's available online and I've just placed an order. This, some bright lights, a bunch of lavender and a glass of pastis...winter will be that little bit shorter.