top of page

The French Experience at school

Updated: May 19

What was your French experience at school? I guess I was lucky, I loved French and it seemed destiny had everything lined up for me for my life where it is now.

Back in the 70s, most junior schools didn’t offer French, but ours was one of the lucky exceptions. Destiny had a plan for me, and every Friday, a woman named Ms. Evans would come to our school to teach us French. The lessons took place in a small, cozy room, and they were optional. Naturally, I eagerly signed up, thrilled by the prospect of learning a new language. We were each given a French name, and I became Nanette, though I had secretly hoped for Nicole. Unfortunately, another Nicola in the class had claimed that name first, so Nanette it was.


The details of the lessons have faded with time, but some memories remain vivid. I recall the vinyl figures Ms. Evans used to stick on the wall, characters with names like Xavier and Guillaume. These names seemed so exotic, so quintessentially French, that they etched themselves into my mind. We sang "Il est né le Divin Enfant" at Christmas, a traditional song that still transports me back to those early lessons. I treasured those sessions, and I still have my French cahier as a memento. It was a glimpse of things to come, a preview of a lifelong passion that was beginning to take root.


Moving on to secondary school, I encountered Mr. Cowling, my French teacher. He was a traditionalist, the kind of teacher who made us stand when he entered the room and addressed the boys by their surnames. Despite his strict demeanour and occasional outbursts, I admired him deeply. He knew of my passion for France and was always supportive and encouraging. I absorbed the language like a sponge, eagerly hanging on his every word, feeding my growing love for French culture.


I stayed in his class for three years, during which time my enthusiasm for the language only grew. In the final year, we were offered the chance to participate in a French exchange program in Remiremont, a small town in the Vosges region of France. I jumped at the opportunity, thrilled by the prospect of immersing myself in the language and culture I had come to love. We spent weeks preparing, exchanging letters with our host families until the big day arrived. We boarded a coach and travelled across France, a journey filled with excitement and a touch of nervous anticipation.


Upon arriving in Remiremont, we waited to be paired with our host families. Being one of the last to be called was a strange and unsettling feeling at 14, especially when climbing into the car of a family I had never met, far from home. The family drove me out of town, stopping at a boulangerie for a tarte aux pommes before heading up into the hills to their home. Unlike my classmates, who stayed in town, I was in the middle of nowhere, which initially frustrated me. But destiny had a plan! We pulled up at what was to be my home for 2 weeks, a large house, nothing fancy, standing alone up in the hills. I was shown to my bedrooom, which was huge compare to my meagre bedroom back home. It was decorated with wallpaper adorned with huge flowers, on the walls and celing, such a typical way to decorate in France. Behind a pink curtain there was my very own small ensuite bathroom, a far cry from my suburban home in Leicester. I unpacked, trying to find familiarity with my belongings whilst feeling homesick and alone, and cried myself to sleep that first night.


Two weeks felt like an eternity compared to the classic one-week exchanges and trips. However, it turned out to be a blessing. We had time to overcome our loneliness, settle in, and begin to use our school-level French in real conversations. Those two weeks were transformative for me, part of that grand plan that destiny had in store.


My penfriend, Patricia, had a younger sister, Nadine, and an older sister, Martine. I got along well with Nadine, who was relaxed and funny, but I was in awe of Martine, the older sister. Her room was the epitome of French teenage chic, with a mattress on the floor and a leopard skin throw. We listened to music, and when she played "Chacun fait (ce qui’il lui plait)" by Chagrin D’Amour, a song I adored back home, it was a surreal moment. This was a record I had heard time and again whilst listening to a French radio, RTL, back home. At only 14, I listened to French radio incessantly, not to understand but to simlply capture the magic of France and immerse myself . This record was so catchy, and I loved it without knowing how big a hit it was in France; two worlds collided, and my English life felt suddenly intertwined with my French adventure.


Later, we went to Remiremont to meet Martine’s fiancé, a suave, cigarette-smoking Frenchman. We sat in a modern café with glass stairs and a water cascade against a wall, a stark contrast to the chintzy 1970s teashops I was used to. This French touch was awakening my soul. I was beginning to live a dream, each moment more enchanting than the last.


Black and white loafer shoes

Martine's upcoming wedding added to the excitement. Remember, destiny had a plan! We shopped for clothes, and Patricia chose stylish cigarette trousers and black and white tasseled loafers, a far cry from my Clarks shoes. Patricia had a moped, and riding it felt so grown up. We visited a family friend who served a dandelion leaf salad with vinaigrette, a novel experience for me. Another visit introduced me to bugnes, a type of triangular doughnut coated in sugar.


Bugnes, a type of doughnut

Each evening, I was given the task of calling everyone to dinner with “à table!” The family was kind, involving me in their routines to help ease my homesickness. it became my "thing", my task to do, and it helped me to feel truly involved in the family, and a little more French. The day before the sister’s wedding, Nadine, Patricia's youngest sister, and I were given the task of putting together the “pièce montée”, this is the traditional French Wedding cake made up of profiteroles filled with crème pâtissiere and mounted in the form of a pyramid, then drizzled with sugar caramel! We had to fill all the profiteroles with the crême patissière, one by one. This was such a privilege to do and at such a young age.


Pièce montée, French Wedding cake
Unbe pièce montée, a typical french Wedding 'cake'

The wedding itself is a blur of memories, but I recall that the celebration continued the next day, unlike English weddings that end at midnight. Those two weeks were deeply influential, giving me a profound insight into French life. I have since found the family on Facebook and thanked them for their kindness, reconnecting with those who had once been strangers but became like family.


Upon returning to school, my French had improved significantly, and I ranked second in the end-of-year exams, only behind a student who had previously lived in France. Destiny had indeed planned to give me a solid grounding in French and experiencing yet another angle fo French culture.i learnt so much from that trip, which ahs stayed with me ever since, and that cultural immersion were all part of a grand design, a destiny that guided me towards a lifelong love affair with France and its language.


Looking back, I realize how fortunate I was to have such opportunities at a young age. The French lessons with Ms. Evans, the strict yet inspiring guidance of Mr. Cowling, and the immersive experience of the exchange program all contributed to a rich tapestry of memories that continue to influence me. Each moment, each interaction, and each challenge overcame helped to shape not just my language skills, but my understanding and appreciation of a culture that has become an integral part of my identity.


 Indeed, destiny had a plan. It led me down a path that I continue to walk with joy and gratitude, ever thankful for the serendipitous events and supportive people who guided me along the way. The journey that began in a small classroom in the 70s has become a lifelong adventure, filled with learning, discovery, and a profound connection to the French language and culture.

But this of course was only the beginning, and there was so much more to come as Destiny's plan unfolded and guided me...

13 views0 comments


bottom of page