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Bon jewer Villefranche

When I climbed the hill to the tiny flat I’d rented for a month in Villefranche-sur-Mer and looked out over one of the Riviera’s most beautiful bays, I remembered Mrs Wickham, my third-form French teacher. « Bon jewer, » she pronounced each morning. « Come ant allay voo ? »

Mrs Wickham mangled the French language and I loathed reciting what at the time seemed meaningless conjugations. Yet something of those classes resonated and by the end of high school all things French had become a passion. Arriving in Villefranche to spend a month at the Institut de Français last northern summer was the realisation of a long-held dream.

There is a huge range of language schools in France. Most offer classes in the morning, leaving the afternoons for sightseeing. At the Institut de Français, they take things much more seriously. This was total immersion. My day started at 8.15 a.m with breakfast and finished at 5 p.m. And French only, s’il vous plait. Anyone heard speaking anything other than French was fined instantly, $2 a word. Happily this was a rule easy to keep because our limited French was the only common language.

The institute has about 70 students at a time, with eight to 10 a class, and they come from all over the world. My classmates included university students from Germany and Britain, retired school teachers from Norway and the United States, an economist from Argentina, a fashion designer from Russia and a policeman from Switzerland.

I regretted not arriving a few days early to give myself time to get over the jet lag because the course began with a three-hour oral and written exam, an ordeal that set the tone for the next four weeks. You can attend a course for two or three weeks ; I chose a month.

It doesn’t matter how much French you have because the school caters for speakers of all levels. I was somewhere in the middle and each day was a fairly demanding round of classes, discussion groups and language laboratory, followed by homework in the evening.

Sometimes we returned to school after dinner to watch and discuss a French movie. Some evenings we walked into the village to one of its many marvellous restaurants, or took a 20-minute bus ride to Nice, always speaking only French.

But it wasn’t all hard work. The Institute’s excellent teachers were good company and discussions over lunch each day were interesting and topical. An exemple of a meal was onion soup followed by trout with almonds, with a cherry savarin for dessert, all served by the school’s chef.

The lessons were always fun. Each afternoon, for example, started with two classes coming together to talk about, say, French wine and cheese (with plenty of both to taste) or what was in that day’s newspaper. I found this particularly helpful for understanding the news on French television.

There were parties and guided tours. We took trips to Monaco and to the medieval villages of St Paul de Vence and Tourette sur Loup.

Just living in Villefranche for a month was a joy. I walked to school each morning along cobbled streets lined with old stone walls dressed in riotous hats of pink and purple bougainvillea. Across ochre rooftops was the soft blue haze of the Mediterranean, St Jean Cap Ferrat to the south, Nice to the north. In the weekends I swam in the bay, wandered through the themed gardens of the Villa Rothschild or, best of all, sat in cafes and watched the local world go by.

I missed the end-of-course party, the champagne financed by those fines, $12 of which was mine. It was hard to leave but I had an early plane to catch to Paris where I spent the weekend revelling in the use of my much improved French. It has come a long way since those tortuous classes at girls high !

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Villefranche-sur-Mer 5 °C
December 16, 2017