Do you dream in French?
This is probably the most common old wives’ tale measure of fluency you’re likely to hear in France, from natives and expats alike.
A more practical fluency milestone is the ability to understand what’s being said over a poorly maintained public address system. For the English this is more than a matter of pride, it’s a heritage skill honed by years of having to make sense of the mumbled announcements at railway stations.
Like most villages in this part of France ours has a ramshackle collection of outdoor speakers used by the Mairie to pass on news about important events. Like most English expats we call the system the “bing-bongs”, after the attention-seeking chimes played ahead of every message. What follows the chimes is usually a mixture of fuzz and distortion, and s very few simple and distinguishable words like “promenade” (square), “marché” (market) and “pizza”.
I’ve always imagined a landmark moment in my understanding of French would be the day I finally understand these impenetrable announcements.
As I was getting ready for my bike ramble this morning I was almost deafened by the loudest bing-bong I’ve ever heard. The message that followed was certain to be urgent, and they obviously had the system at full blast because they were almost making the windows vibrate. Sadly, volume really isn’t the answer. The system is just not up to the job. All I could make out clearly was that something was happening on the promenade – but something is ALWAYS happening on the promenade.
I wouldn’t know what until I came back from my ride.
We’re a bit low on perishables at the moment, so when I made my eventual tired and sweaty return I headed to the bakery for “the usual”. As I freewheeled past the far end of the square and into the Mairie car park, I was surprised to see more people than have ever been collected outside in daylight when there wasn’t some kind of free, catered village event. Knots of old folks were all cheerfully swapping the time of day. Neither babysitting duties for the official midweek no-kids-in-school day or the approach of lunchtime could explain this many people.
I’m not proud to say, I was so involved in dismantling my crash helmet and iPod speakers I noticed nothing as I dropped my bike carefully outside the bakery and went in for my “deux gros pains” (2 big breads).
It was only as I was facing frontwards coming outside again that I noticed everyone was staring over the top of the hedge at the back of the car park, watching a couple of houses being demolished.
This is an unexpected development that seems to be part of the building project that’s been going on since we arrived in July. We now have a near-completed low-rise block of flats, with a ground floor level of shop-style units, on ground between the Mairie and the the back of the village square. Today they began to demolish the 2 remaining houses that stand between the Mairie/Post Office/bakery car park and the square. It’s not clear yet if this is to add yet another building, or extend the square all the way through into the car park.