January 27: It’s English or bust

There’s a by-law of some kind that says deux-roues (two-wheelers) aren’t allowed on the Tram tracks, but I don’t think it applies to bicycles. One of my favourite things to do is to jump on a VeloBleu on a sunny morning and coast downhill, aiming at the one palm tree that’s perfectly centered between the buildings at the bottom of Avenue Jean Medecin. Everything is backlit by the sun over the sea, and the glitter is ferocious when it’s still early. People, too, are backlit – black shadows trundling across the tramway in front of me. They’d be very easy to knock over and kill if I were a little bit less responsible with my speed. But I AM responsible. So far I haven’t been tipsy in charge of a bicycle at that time of the morning.

When people admit to “guilty pleasures” they often involve chocolate or even peanut butter, but one of mine would definitely be riding a bike while slightly inebriated. Actually, let me refine that: it would be riding my bike tipsily towards home along The Avenue in Chiswick from Turnham Green Underground station late on a warm night after having been out with friends.

The thing is, there are usually few people crossing The Avenue at night. It wouldn’t occur to me to shout at any of them. Here in Nice, however, I’m afraid I’ve developed a bad habit. People seem to believe they have a right to comment loudly on whatever other people do. So, I can be riding my bike slowly and awarefully of doddery old folk, poncy little dogs in coats, babies in pushchairs whose mothers stick them out into the road before crossing, pizza-delivery boys on mopeds, etc. Someone always has a comment to shout at me about cyclists and where they should and shouldn’t be. I used to be cowed by it all, but now that I feel more confident zooming about in my adopted town, I fight back. My weapon is the English language.

Dylan learning the English word for "nose"

My favourite little English student, Dylan, obviously spends a lot of time on his computer at home. While playing games, he picks up things he’s not even aware are English, such as “No Way!” and “Here we go!” When I tried to show him that “Robot Boy” was English, he got into a terrible tizz. He’d written the words on the board for no apparent reason, in that sort of ecstasy six- or seven-years-olds go into. He kept insisting they were just the name of a cartoon, but I showed him the English flashcard for “boy” which he’d already learned. He had to accept it. I could see it in his face: most of his really favourite stuff is in English. The enormity of it seemed to dawn on him. It’s English or bust.

Why? Hollywood. Anglophone television shows. The Internet. English is everywhere, you can’t fight it. It’s also shorter and tighter. For example, “People” is now the normal French word for celebrities – as in “Les People”. Magazines use English to the point of distraction: last week’s Paris Match had the words “Love Story” and “Week-end” on the cover. In the January issue of Marie Claire I found English words on almost every page, from “smoky” eyes to “rock and glam” decades to “boyish” haircuts.

But it’s not just lightweight mags. In Libération, the leftist newspaper I look at most days, there are sections called LibéNext and LibéFood. When I was looking online for a new phone for Joel, I noticed that I could “chattez” with an advisor – but the word “chat” in French means cat! Francois Hollande, the Socialist presidential candidate, launched his campaign at a big “meeting”. Even my gym schedule is called a “planning”. I often see “Le Best Of” referring to everything from croissants to theatre.

It didn’t used to be like this. My other favourite student Malou, about 80 years older than Dylan, is a well-travelled, sophisticated woman who remembers the days when French was a language you could count on to get you through Europe. No longer, she says. She knows it too: it’s English or bust.

I don’t mean any of this in a smug, arrogant way – please! In fact I feel grateful and privileged that the luck of the draw means I don’t have to learn to speak English. It would be a long, exhausting haul if I did. But! If I were in New York or London riding a bike, and someone screeched at me, if I retorted, vas te faire enculer!, he or she might assume I was saying Whoops, so sorry! Here in Nice, being so primed in English through movies, TV and magazines, people often have a very good idea of what I mean when I shout loudly and angrily in reply, in English, Get a life, asshole!

Yes, I know it’s not very becoming for a nice person like me, but at least it shuts them up.

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About Suellen Grealy

In 2011, a series of coincidences led my husband Joel, our cat Ted and me away from London, where we lived quite happily for 30 years, to Nice, where Joel grew up. While he and his sister ran their restaurant, I wrote a novel. Family being family, Joel and his sister no longer work together. Writing being writing, the novel lingers on... Meanwhile, we've found ways of living a completely different life from the one we had in London, including running our own restaurant together, 7 Villermont. The only constants are our Ted, our now-battered Peugeot, and each other. Everything else is a complete surprise
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2 Responses to January 27: It’s English or bust

  1. Sarah says:

    I really enjoyed this one – really had a good little laugh at saying get a life, asshole while riding your bike!

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