La gare de PauMy first trip to France was in the summer of 1961, when I was 19. I spent the summer in the city of Pau, in the south of France, living with a French family, on a French immersion program called "Classrooms Abroad". We traveled to France by ocean liner (the S.S. Jerusalem), which provided some time for our leader, Mr. Hartle , to test our French, and sort us into groups (I was in the less-capable of the two). After arriving in Marseille, we traveled overland to Pau, with a one-night stop at a hotel near the railroad station in Carcassonne. Half the group, including me, traveled in a van, while the other half went by train.

In Carcassonne, we toured the walled city (to which I would return in 2009, 48 years later). Then we dropped the other half of our group at the station well in advance of the departure of their train, and drove off in the van towards our final destination, the city of Pau, just north of the Pyrenees mountains on the Spanish border. Arriving in Pau, we drove to La gare de Pau (the railway station, shown above) to meet the train. It arrived precisely on time, as is customary for French trains. But the other half of our group, travelling with Mr. Hartle's French wife, was not on board.

This was, of course, way before the days of mobile phones. Mr. Hartle checked with his own accommodations in Pau, but no message had been received. The whereabouts of the rest of our group was entirely unknown. Given the uncertainty as to what had happened, Mr. Hartle chose to not deliver the rest of us to our waiting families, and we just hung around the train station. Musing about the situation as we waited, Mr. Hartle was heard to observe, "Quelle endroit ironique de perdre la moitié de notre groupe - l'Hôtel le Terminus, à Carcassonne ("What an ironic place to lose half our group - the Hôtel le Terminus, in Carcassonne)". He said it in French, because this was a French immersion program, after all, and Mr. Hartle only spoke to us in French.

It ultimately turned out that there had been a typically French event, une manifestation (a demonstration) Note 1 in Carcassonne. A group of farmers unhappy about something or other had driven their tractors onto the tracks and blocked the departing train. We had actually seen the parade of tractors approaching the station as we drove off, but of course, we had no idea what was going on. As a result of this activity, the train our group had been on was seriously delayed.

Awaiting their arrival in Pau, what we had all forgotten was that the on-time train we had met had not come directly from Carcassonne. Our group had a connection somewhere between Carcassonne and Pau, which they had missed. And Mr. Hartle's wife, who it later turned out was a bit ditzy, had lost the phone number of their destination in Pau, so she was unable to tell us what had happened.

The upshot of all of this was that I arrived at the home of my host family in the wee small hours of the morning, and went straight to bed. When the sun rose, I was awakened by a very small girl who toddled into my bedroom. She started chattering away, in French, of course, and I was horrified to find that I couldn’t understand a word she was saying.

Having had only a few years of high school French, and not having been the best of students, my facility with that language wasn’t very good at the time. Still, to be able to enjoy the summer, I figured I would need to be able to understand something. Concentrating really hard, I finally made out one complete sentence, which the toddler seemed to repeat several times. She said, "Maman est partie – elle téléphone!" ("Mother has left - she telephones!"). But apart from that, nothing made sense.

After a while, I went downstairs for breakfast, and to meet the family (having not had any time to speak with them when I had first arrived in the middle of the night). Much to my relief, I found that if I asked them to speak slowly, I was able to understand them reasonably well. Although our conversation was entirely in French (they did not speak English), I'll report it here in English. I told them that I had been afraid of not being able to understand them, because I had not been able to understand Véronique (which proved to be the toddler’s name).

The family members exchanged an odd glance, and then one of them said to me, "But she doesn’t speak!"

"Yes, she does", I protested. "I heard her say, ‘Maman est partie – elle téléphone!’ several times."

"Oh, yes," the family agreed. "But that’s her only sentence. Other than that, she can’t talk yet."

So Véronique was just babbling – baby talk. But she was babbling in French phonemes! That’s what children do when they’re first learning to speak. Before actually forming real words, they practice by babbling in the sounds that they hear, the sounds that will become the constituents of their native language. That’s why it sounded so convincingly French to me, even though it didn’t actually make any sense. Toddlers in different linguistic environments babble using different sounds.

As for the one complete sentence Véronique possessed, that one had been repeated to her many times, and she had learned it by rote. The family was taking care of her while her mother was away on a brief vacation. I have no idea whether or not she actually understood what it meant.

So that summer, Véronique and I each worked on our French. I'm sure that by now, she speaks it much better than I do, wherever she is (she must now be a bit over fifty years old).

More stories from my Classrooms Abroad summer in France
can be found at #0020, Monsieur L'Oiseau.


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© 2010 Lawrence J. Krakauer   Click here to send me e-mail.
Originally posted January 28, 2010, slightly updated March 25, 2010

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

Note 1:   Because this parade of tractors was more of a "demonstration" than a work stoppage, it was referred to as "une manifestation". The usual French word for a "strike" is "une grève".   [return to text]