Jayne Dowle: French lesson is a rude awakening to power of language and good manners

IT is said that travel broadens the mind. It also teaches us valuable lessons about ourselves. Our recent trip to France convinced my children that speaking a foreign language doesn’t just get you good grades. It gets you food, cold drinks and taxis.

Flag waving in Paris
Flag waving in Paris

And a week spent with our closest continental neighbours taught us all a lot about civilised behaviour, especially in public.

It’s a debate ridden with clichés, admittedly. French children eat even the crustiest of baguettes, sit nicely at the table and don’t make a fuss. French women drink wine, eat cheese and don’t get fat. Indeed, there is a whole section of the library devoted to “what we could learn from the French”. This is accompanied by a lot of prejudice and preconceptions about France and French people which I intend to challenge from now on.

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Instead of scoffing at their fancy manners, we should stop being so arrogantly Anglo-Saxon and learn a few things.

I’ve been to France several times, but this was the first visit for my son Jack and daughter Lizzie. Having children in tow certainly puts you on the spot; you have to think for them as well as for yourself.

The challenge was heightened by the fact that this was a trip done mostly on public transport. We travelled to Paris by Eurostar for two nights. Then we moved on by train to Normandy to visit the grave of my husband’s uncle, killed near Arromanches during the D-Day landings in 1944. We didn’t hire a car, so relied on local buses, taxis and strong Yorkshire legs to get us around.

At almost 11, Jack is mortally embarrassed by anything his mother does which he judges to be not “cool”. This amounts to quite a long list already, obviously. And it was certainly added to by my attempts to muster my schoolgirl French to ask for directions, items in shops etc.

This was until he realised that the garble of words, plus much animated smiling and finger-pointing, was capable of producing results. Gradually, it dawned on him that having even the most basic grasp of a foreign language is pretty useful.

Having a go endears you to people too, even if it’s only because they feel sorry for you.

You only had to observe the brash American yelling loudly at the driver on the local bus in Normandy to realise that. Shouting in English about where to get lunch at a site where hundreds of men lost their lives in battle gave new meaning to the words “crass” and “insensitive”.

It also made me feel more European than I think I have ever felt in my life.

Another cliché alert, sorry. There is definitely something about France which heightens your sensitivity. It makes you aware, not only of how you speak, but how loudly you do it. However packed the restaurant or railway carriage, it’s all so quiet. No-one is swearing. No children are screaming or kicking off. When we boarded the train from Paris to Bayeux my heart sank though. It was one of those with old-fashioned compartments. No escape. In we piled, to be greeted by an elderly lady, her grandson and a younger woman reading a book. My husband and I exchanged significant glances. However, both children sat down, pulled out their iPads, popped in their headphones and never uttered a word for the next two hours.

As we disembarked, the steely grand-mère met my eyes with a look of approval. I felt like we had passed a test. It was a test that would raise the bar for behaviour on every train in Britain. In fact, every train and bus and public place should have such a steely grand-mère looking over the top of her glasses to pass judgment.

We could have done with a whole troop of them in Meadowhall the other day. I saw two mothers stuffing their faces with take-aways, totally oblivious to the fact that their toddlers were crawling on the floor beneath the table in a mess of discarded cartons and spilt ketchup. I couldn’t help but think that in France, those little ones would be sitting up properly. And those mothers wouldn’t be cramming burgers into their mouths. In fact, they wouldn’t be eating take-aways at all.

There I go again though. Every holiday must come to an end. Back to reality and all that. I’m cheering myself up with the thought of the Tour de France coming to Yorkshire next year. I just hope we can rise to the challenge, and be good ambassadors for our county and our country in turn. I fear we may have a way to go, so here’s a little tale that may inspire. It was hot. We were hungry. We were standing on a street corner in Paris looking for a café when we were approached by a middle-aged woman. “Excuse me,” she said. “I speak a little English. Are you lost? May I help you with anything?”

Tell me honestly. Can you imagine that happening in Leeds? And then tell me again that the French can’t teach us anything.