Monsieur L'Oiseau

Summer in Pau, at age 19

In the summer of 1961 I made my first trip to France. It was a language study trip with an organization called "Classrooms Abroad". I spent the summer in the city of Pau (Pyrénées-Atlantiques Note 1), in the south of France. We lived with French families, and spent our mornings studying French at the Institut d'Études Françaises pour Étrangers ("Institute of French Studies for Foreigners"), part of the Université de Bordeau à Pau. The family I stayed with in July is shown in the picture above, which shows Mme. Andrieu and her son and daughter. The story of my arrival in Pau can be found in entry #0012, Véronique. The toddler Véronique is not shown in the photo, as she was only being watched for a short time until her own mother returned from vacation.

My family in PauI'm shown, at age 19, in the picture to the left. The family home was called Villa Mozart, and was located on the Avenue Péboué. Margie and I now travel in southern France from time to time, and I'd love to return there and try to locate members of the family, but that might be rather hard to do after fifty years. I don't even know if the house is still standing.

This story, though, is about another incident that occurred that summer. Before starting the first day of our morning French classes at the university, we were greeted by the "doyen" (dean) of the university, a certain Monsieur L'Oiseau. It's easy for me to remember his name nearly 50 years later, because l'oiseau means "the bird", and he had a thin pointed nose that very much resembled a beak. His welcoming speech was peppered with examples of the imparfait du subjonctif, one of the more difficult, and seldom used, French verb tenses. This made his remarks fairly incomprehensible to the members of our group, fresh out of high school French. Once our classes started, we didn't see the dean any more.

Thinking back over that summer, I remember many of the other students in the group, which had a nice ratio of 15 girls to 5 boys. I remember the families we stayed with, some of our afternoon activities, and our final tour around the perimeter of France (see #0009, Sehr gut). But I really can't recall much about our morning classes, other than some of the stories we read, and I have no photos of the classes or of the dean or the professors. Never let your schooling interfere with your education, I suppose.

Fast-forward to the end of the summer, when our group threw a goodbye dinner party for the faculty, and the dean once again put in an appearance. The dinner was excellent, and the wine flowed freely. Monsieur L'Oiseau, at the head of the table, became involved in a discussion about the relative formality of French professors compared with American teachers. The university faculty all referred to each other using their titles, and the dean was always called "Monsieur le Doyen".

The Americans at the table noted that in the States, teachers were very informal, and interacted with each other on a first-name basis. Having perhaps had more glasses of wine than he customarily drank, Monsieur le Doyen apparently decided to try this out. Looking across the table at a professor named Monsieur Gautier, Monsieur L'Oiseau called out, in a rather loud voice, "Pierre!"  Monsieur Gautier did not immediately react to this, so the dean persisted, calling out again "Pierre!"  This time, he spoke loudly enough to get everyone's attention, and a hush fell over the table.

Monsieur Gautier looked back at the dean with an expression of confusion on his face, and stammered, "Vous ... vous parlez à moi, Monsieur le Doyen?" ("You're speaking to me, Dean sir?"). The dean replied, "Eh bien, oui, Pierre!" Monsieur Gautier then said, "Mais... mais... Je m'appelle Maurice!" ("But... but... my name is Maurice!").

Perhaps the dean could be forgiven for getting Monsieur Gautier's first name wrong, since he had never before had occasion to use it. After all, they had only been working together for thirty years.

The next day, some of the faculty members were apologetic about Monsieur L'Oiseau's having over-imbibed at the dinner, and they assured us that they had never seen him do this before. We hadn't been particularly offended. I wonder if the episode loosened up relations among the faculty members a bit. I doubt that anyone started using first names, though.

Note: I sent an earlier version of this entry to Kristin Espinasse, who is my blogging idol - she posts not once a week, but in fact three times a week, on her excellent blog "French Word-A-Day". Thus this story was first seen on the Internet on December 3, 2008, when Kristin posted it at:



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© 2010 Lawrence J. Krakauer   Click here to send me e-mail.
Originally posted March 25, 2010, and slightly updated April 21, 2010.

Footnotes (click [return to text] to go back to the footnote link)

Note 1:   When I was there, the Département in which Pau is located was called Basses-Pyrénées. But in 1969, it was renamed Pyrénées-Atlantiques. It's in the extreme south-west corner of France, in the Aquitaine region, bordering on the Atlantic ocean to its west, and Spain to its south.   [return to text]