On the verge of retirement, Claudine's teaching career had already spanned many decades. She knew her French cold and could answer any grammar question with a dictatorial pride (and ferocity), yet it didn't take a genius to know that her methods had stubbornly refused to evolve with the times. You didn't even have to speak French to figure that one out.
She ruled her class with an iron fist and was prone to outbursts of anger for questions answered incorrectly. On more than one occasion it must have taken the strength of a rhinoceros to resist whacking us upside the head.
So on this particular day we were studying the verb être (to be)...je suis...tu es...il est....elle est...We learned that when conjugating certain verbs in the past tense, we must combine them with the auxiliary 'être'. Apparently a house provides the perfect structure to drive the point...home.
The lesson went something like this:
In the attic is where Jacques was born (Jacques est né). This is also where he died (il est mort) all alone.
We all know how dangerous it can be to work on the roof. Jacques was not wearing his safety harness this day and he fell (il est tombé).
This particular house has a lot of stairs going up and down. Jacques went up (il est monté) and then back down again (il est descendu).
One day Jacques stayed (il est resté) in front of the TV for hours, became (il est devenu) old and decrepit, then went through (il est passé) the living room to the kitchen to get a Rolaids and a glass of warm milk.
Jacques went in (il est entré) through the front door. There was a party going on and he arrived (il est arrivé) 15 minutes late, which is the French custom.
He came (il est venu) to the party to see Béatrice, his girlfriend. Jacques went (il est allé) to the back room where the guests were dancing.
"Have you seen Béatrice?" Jacques asked the host of the party.
"Yes", she said. "But she went (elle est sorti) out of the room ten minutes ago. She left (elle est parti) with Peter.
Confused and disappointed, Jacques returned (il est retourné) to the back room and sat on the couch to wait for Béatrice to come back.
During the lesson I wrote la maison d'être on top of the page Only one month of lessons and already I was making a pun in French (maison d'être / raison d'être). I was so pleased with myself that I blurted it out to Claudine, thinking she would be proud at my cleverness.
I thought it was funny, but all I got in return was a cold, silent regard. It was like staring down a Rodin. Fortunately Claudine had been on the other side of the room. I cringe to think what would have happened had she been standing next to me.
But I learned my lesson that day, mainly that learning French is not a funny undertaking or for those seeking points for being clever. At least not with a teacher like Claudine.
To be fair about it though, the French language does embody a certain logic. It also possesses a tantalizingly rich vocabulary, some of which doesn't seem to exist elsewhere.
For example, the phrase 'l'esprit de l'escalier' is known as that feeling you get when you leave a conversation and suddenly think of all the things you should have said, or could have said better. Only now it's too late. As far as I know, English doesn't have an equivalent, which is too bad because I would already have had several occasions to put it to good use.
But even native speakers, it seems, have their fair share of difficulty with the language. Today's top news flash headline for MSN France asks the question: Is Our President A Bad Student in French?
According to the article the opinions are divided, some experts claiming he uses vulgar language while others say he expresses himself rather well. Whatever your take on it, it's hard to deny the "Casse-toi, pauve con" incident from February 2008.
I imagine sparks - and vulgarities (grammatically correct or not) - would most certainly fly, should the President of the Republic ever go head to head with a teacher of Claudine's ilk. But why even bother?
A much better use of our time would be to contemplate the ups and downs and ins and outs of our own maison d'être. After all, if we follow the worksheet to the letter, it's where we're born and spend the bulk of our lives before retiring to the attic forever.