FUN WITH THE FOREIGNERS: 4. Missing the bus


Like The Cure meets Patricia Highsmith- with added little deaths!”

4. Missing the bus

I am living. I am deceased. I am a stranger in your bed. But more of that later.

You remember what happened in yesterday’s barn-storming, back-slapping and barrel-scraping episode of Fun With The Foreigners? Yes, that’s right, I wasn’t quite sure if I was a bon viveur, an existentialist, or a cuckoo! Well remembered. Today we’re going to be much more grounded, as our spotty hero heads for the border, denounces sloppy programming, and invariably misses the bus.

We went on school trips to France by coach and ferry in the early 1980s- I remember we ran riot around the streets of a small town, several of us nearly got run over because nobody had warned us the cars wouldn’t stop on pedestrian crossings, and at least one of my classmates bought a flick-knife and smuggled it back to Blighty.

Our normally taciturn and uptight headmaster, known for administering the cane he kept hanging over his desk, waxed lyrical about France. He would come on every trip, sit at sunset on the hotel balcony nursing a glass of wine, and hold an audience that was open to all-comers, pointing out features of the landscape (in England the only extra-curricular topic he discussed was his stamp collection). Once he even spoke of his much-missed first wife, a topic that imbued the dusk over the mudflats near Mont St. Michel with an unfamiliar adult melancholy that I have associated with the area ever since.

Then at 13, I got hopelessly lost on the endless seafront at Le Touquet, and didn’t make it on to the bus home. All I knew how to ask was “Où est la plage?” Even when I found another English school party, who brought me back with them on the boat, the staff had no way of communicating with the teacher who’d stayed behind looking for me, and my parents received no news of me until I turned up the next morning. The headmaster banned me from future school trips. (Though the worst part was my classmates’ annoyance and lack of sympathy: their delayed departure had meant they had been forced to skip duty free shopping for “souvenirs”.) So began my aspiring career as an intrepid traveller: hounded and grounded.

As the sixth form approached, my French teacher offered to postpone her retirement and teach me and a few classmates Spanish from scratch. It sounded like a tall order to reach “A”-level standard in two years, but Miss Baker was a superb teacher, and there were two other factors at play: there was no native speaker Spanish Assistant at my school, so my two female classmates and I would be obliged to take conversation classes at the convent school across the road, and my parents said I could go back-packing in Spain in the autumn half-term with a friend, as long as I was capable of saying more than “Dónde está la playa?” by then.

So the first consequence the next year was that I spent more time on Wednesday afternoons boldly strolling, with full official permission, around another school’s corridors to a symphony of teenage giggles and the whispered cry of “It’s a boy!” than I did actually sitting in the classroom making small-talk in Spanish, unnerved by a plethora of crosses and religious imagery on the walls.

The second was that, aged 17, my mate Ian and I got on the wrong bus to Spain, had a lot of fun with foreigners (mainly thanks to mistaken identity) and got robbed of all our possessions. Tune in for that tomorrow!

Before leaving on that trip, I did find I was making progress with the language of Cervantes, though. I’d like to say I worked hard, but I didn’t. I’ve never worked hard at the languages I love- some linguist colleagues might say it shows. I worked very hard at maths, the sciences and geography, with mixed results. I did Advanced Maths and won computer competitions, but scraped through everything else. I reached peak train-spotting in 1988, and my project in that year for automated train information at stations (screens were just beginning to be introduced to replace manual departure indicators) was slightly more sophisticated than those used by most British train companies today, which still scroll slavishly through irrelevant information and are slow to respond to real-time updates. It’s all sloppy programming.

I did have to work hard at German, though, and still do. Have to, I mean. Not claiming I genuinely do.

You remember Zsa Zsa Gabor’s famous advice: “The only way to learn a language properly, in fact, is to marry a man of that nationality. You get what they call in Europe a ‘sleeping dictionary.’ Of course, I have only been married five times, and I speak seven languages. I’m still trying to remember where I picked up the other two.

I’m not saying my scandalous presence in the convent was somehow connected to my picking up fluency. Rather the opposite: the lovely Margalida from Majorca (and therefore native speaker of mallorquí), whose job it was to make small talk in her second language all day every day with dozens of teenage girls (plus me), was keen to get out of the convent during her year in England, and do things like gossiping in a Windsor pub, getting tipsy and indiscreet, and providing a gauche 17-year-old boy with a significant proportion of the Theory section of his educació sentimental.

I’ll draw a veil over most of the content, and just share my pedagogical conclusion that situated learning, with context-based pragmatic exercises, can do wonders for fluency, empathy and cultural sensitivity, as well as the mastery of such tricky points of Spanish grammar as emphatic inversions of word order, and the use of the imperfect subjunctive in a hypothetical clause.

So memorable was this innovative approach that 29 years later I can quote two of her bar-room bons mots verbatim. I can see her now, with her detached elegance, cynically eyeing up the Friday night crowds of Anglo-Saxon revellers in The Old Trout… (“Si yo tuviera su tipo, no me pondría ese vestido”- “If I had her figure, I wouldn’t wear that dress”) or reminiscing about disappointing suitors (“A fin de cuentas, importa el tamaño, eh? Te lo digo yo”. “At the end of the day, size DOES matter. I can vouch for that.”)

My strongest languages that year remained BASIC, and Machine Code.fwf-4-m-boffin


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