School’s in for the summer
How would your children react if you told them they were going on a French course in the holidays? John Clare’s weren’t keen, until they arrived in class.
I can’t believe my ears. My nine-year-old son, completely unprompted, is standing in a chateau in France, doing his best to strike up a conversation in French with an adult. Just a week ago we had to fight to keep our frustration in check as the present tense of regular -er verbs refused to stick in his brain. Around our own kitchen table our efforts at elementary French conversation elicited no more than a grunted, embarrassed “Bonjour”.
What’s changed is that we’re spending half-term week on a French course in Sancerre. No English is spoken during classes or breaks, even with other English speakers. That’s how I find myself discussing French wines in French with an accountant from Manchester, and my eight-year-old daughter attempts (in French) to quiz an elderly American woman about life in Hawaii. A very different kind of French leave.
In this region, a week of total immersion in all things French means great wine, cheese and food – but all topics are encouraged, as long as you discuss them in the right language. During the week the four of us got through a huge range, from Harry Potter and the Roman armies (Julius Caesar pitched the first camp in Sancerre 2,000 years ago), to the debate over GM crops and the British fascination with hospital dramas.
Oliver’s attempts at l’entente cordiale are in stark contrast to the family’s response when I first suggested the idea. Even my wife was hardly encouraging. “If you think you can sell that to the children, good luck,” was her helpful response. Oliver and India were united in their initial opposition. “That doesn’t sound like much of a holiday for us,” they said.
In reality, it worked even better than we’d hoped. The courses are run by Coeur de France, a business run by husband and wife team Gerard and Marianne Chartrand (He’s American, she’s French). The setting is the first surprise – Sancerre, which for me was previously only a name on wine labels, is a beautiful town perched atop a hillside by the banks of the Loire. The town has hardly changed for hundreds of years, and the most impressive building is La Thaumassière, right in the centre of town. Built in the 16th century for the physician of a prince of the region, it’s an imposing sight complete with a fairytale-style turret and gargoyles around the eaves. This would be our home for the week.
We in one of the building’s family apartments – self-catering, so if you don’t go shopping in French, you don’t eat. Although it was well-furnished and very comfortable, those thoughts were far from our minds as we arrived, nervously, for our first class at 8.45 on Monday morning.
None of us knew what to expect in the four hours of French that lay ahead. On the way into class we met fellow students, all adults who were taking individual tuition in separate classrooms. We introduced ourselves in English and were gently encouraged to speak French by Marianne, our teacher for the week.
The four of us filed into the brightly-decorated “family classroom” where we would receive our 20 hours of tuition over the five days. Marianne overcame the initial awkwardness by speaking to the children, very slowly, asking their names, ages and inquiring about family pets. She quickly adapted to the very different standards of French in the family, and the children relaxed.
We chose Coeur de France because among their wide range of courses they specialise in teaching families. It soon became clear that this had been a good idea because the lessons were structured to accommodate our different standards and flexible enough to “go with the flow” when the children began to lose concentration. Very quickly the children got into the swing of things, and joined in the French songs and games Marianne introduced. We adults were encouraged to read French newspapers and magazines, and bring articles to class as discussion subjects. I wanted to gain confidence in spoken French, and improve my business vocabulary. I achieved both to the extent that on the fourth day I made a PowerPoint presentation in French for the first time in my life.
But cultural immersion means far more than sitting in a classroom, so once the lessons were over we took ourselves off around the area to try out our new skills. Unlike Paris, many local people don’t speak English, so we avoided the frustration of speaking to someone in French, only for them to recognise your accent and reply in English. The only exception was Didier Turpin, who delighted in telling us how, when he was a trainee chef in England, he shared a flat with Marco Pierre White. With that pedigree, we had to try out his restaurant, The Pomme D’Or. We weren’t disappointed.
Sancerre is worth a visit, because of its rich history – in the 16th century the town was a walled city and a renowned Protestant stronghold. After a long siege the walls and towers were destroyed, but one still remains, mysteriously preserved.
The town’s position on a hilltop means that you get fabulous views of the Loire Valley and can see the patchwork quilt of vineyards – 400 in all. Then there’s the Crottin de Chavignol, the goat’s cheese which, like the wine, comes with an appellation contrôle certification. Ironically, there are no goats left in Chavignol itself, despite the name. “The goats need feeding and milking twice a day, every day. But vines need harvesting once or twice a year – so the farmers have turned into vintners,” explained Valerie, our guide and another teacher at the school.
Then of course there’s the food. As with so many places in France, the local restaurants are independent, often family run, and conjure up tremendously high-class cuisine. Immersion here for the children meant that Oliver was determined to try snails (such a big success he had them twice), while India was keen to try her new words and phrases.
So what’s the end of term report on the école des langues? Full marks from the adults.
“My friends at school all said how unlucky I was to be going on the trip, but in the end I really enjoyed it. It was great fun, and everybody was great. I was nervous but once I started joining in it was OK. I didn’t expect French lessons to be fun.”
“I was scared that it would be a bit complicated but actually it turned out well. Everyone was very nice to me, especially Marianne, and we made friends very quickly. I want to go back next year.”