Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Round and round it goes.

My first visit to France was to a small village called Thésée-sur-Cher, in the Loire Valley. The nearest city is Tours, which I remember for its magnificent cathedral that I visited some 10 years later on one of several car-touring holidays. My first visit was in 1967, if I recall correctly. I had started to learn French the previous year, after going to grammar school and had found it easy-peasy. Going to France made sense to try and speak to "the natives". I never had then nor now plans to do more with French than be able to be understood. The fact that I did not not follow the natural route and become a French scholar is a story of what can happen when one finds things too easy and is brought up to seek challenges: I started to study economics, instead. The fact that more than 30 years after stopping study of French I found myself having French lessons again at work is proof that things go round in circles. The fact that I then went to work for three years in a French-speaking country is testimony to the great teaching I had as a boy and the value of learning a language when you are long; it's cemeneted into the brain. The fact that I encourage my four year old to keep speaking French as well as English as she grows up in Barbados is part of my belief that children have enormous capacity for adaptation. More on the reminisces.

Before my school group got to France I had to deal with that indescribable feeling that comes from being tossed around on the waves of the sea. Not long after the white cliffs of Dover were receding into the horizon, the sense of breakfast rising in the stomach came upon me and many others. The sight of others hanging their head over the side groaning and convulsing often brings on the same action. Two hours or so of horror to travel 20 miles.

On arrival, I met so many things that were different. First, everyone spoke French so fast and with accents different from that of my Scottish teacher. Second, the French have some clear ideas about what food you eat and when, not that I really minded, but I could see my schoolmates shrivelling. I ate and still eat most things so long as they are not moving on my plate or in my mouth. I had heard that the French ate frog legs and snails but I thought it was a childhood joke, like pretending to eat worms; but no, they really ate these things. More simply, they love to eat loads of bread and with every meal and every course except dessert. From an early point, I fell in love with baguettes, with their crispy crusts, and was always happy to break off a chunk to eat--with jam, with cheese, on its own with Nutella chocolate spread, to dip into a bowl of hot chocolate, to wipe up the sauce. Third, they drove on the right: I had grown up learning "Look right; look left; look right again. Cross." So, there I was trying to be like the chicken, just wanting to cross the road, but I was in grave danger of just becoming road kill. The first time that a big truck (poids lourdes) nearly wasted me my pants had a nasty wet feeling: near-death experiences can be like that. But I am a quick learner. Look left first. Why didn't we have a course on this before leaving England?

All these experiences left me feeling a bit mixed up about whether I would like France. But that soon changed after I met some French children. Though the French style of study is more rigid than the English--France is a very centralized country and it used to be said that on any day you could go into any school and know that every child in a particular grade was being taught the same thing wherever that was in France. But, even with our poor French and their poor English, we seemed much the same. We got to know each other playing around what I thought was a billiards table; they played a game called "cannon"--essentially the same but different rules. We went to a bar--unimaginable for a child in England at that time--not to drink alcohol but to drink diablos (fizzy lemonade either with mint syrup, or strawberry or raspberry syrup). I met a girl, whose name I remember as Sylvie, and we tried hard to understand each other; we stayed pen pals for a few years after the trip. I don't really remember now if she was pretty; but I recall she was tall and we spent a lot of time together. I was fascinated by how she wrote, in that single national cursive style of the French system, that has served the test of time; they even have a document showing the correct strokes for forming and joining letters. I remembered that like in my school class, everyone else I met was white; I had no knowledge at that time of France's history as a colonial power or anything about French speaking islands in Africa or the Caribbean.

All of this passed through my head as I drove east from La Rochelle to Paris yesterday to watch the French Open. I saw signs for the great Loire valley French chateaus--Amboise, Chenonceaux, Chambord, Saumur--and was transported back 40 years. Swimming in the river Cher. Riding a bicycle down the village street. Seeing children just a few years older than me riding a mobylette--a motorized two-wheeler, with a two-stroke engine, invented in the mid-1940s, for which the legal age to ride alone is 14. Seeing many people older riding one with a baguette or newsaper or chicken under the arm--a standard image of France. I started to remember the many trips I had made to France and places I had visited. Trips to the south --Pau (famous for rugby) and Tarbes, where I had a Guyanese friend studying to be a linguist. To the east, bordering Germany and very different for that--Mulhouse, in the Alsace. North-eastern towns--Charleville-Mézières--bordering Belgium. Mimizan on the south west Atlantic coast. The many places in between, such as La Bourboule in the Auvergne, near Clermont-Ferrand. Visits to the Bordeaux or Burgundy areas to taste and buy lots of wine. Living for two weeks in a farmhouse near a town called Casteljaloux, to the east of Bordeaux, with a bunch of other students from my college. Lots of memories.

Travel is wonderful for what you discover and what you retain. It's also splendid for who you meet and who you hold in your memory, often barely known yet long remembered. Here I am in France, spending two weeks with a family I met in Africa just two years ago. I regard them as friends and am just getting to know them. Life is so interesting.

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