Friday, October 19, 2007

Two Cities

Bordeaux, the capital of the French wine industry - not the plural of bordel - reminds me of Liverpool in many ways. Unlike the cities of southern France, which face the Med, it looks onto a river that was once its life-blood, and it has a skyline.
Another link is the Celtic connection: many of the vineyards carry Irish names, like Château Lynch-Bages and the Châteaux Palmer, Phelan, Parker, Barton, Brown – mostly descendants of supporters of James II, who hoped, with the help of the Irish Catholics, to regain the English throne. Like most Scouses, I had forbears of both faiths: Irish Catholic ones in Drogheda, who used to take me to the site of the Battle of the Boyne and tell me sad stories of how James was defeated by William of Orange in 1690 - while in Liverpool my Uncle Bill would strut his Protestant stuff in bowler hat and orange sash every July 12 to celebrate his namesake’s proud victory.

Speaking in Tongues Why Bordeaux? I mentioned how we like to take French bus tours as a means of immersing ourselves in the language. The mistake we made on our previous “Total Immersion” was to take a French tour - of Sicily. As the guides were Italian, by the time the brain had unscrambled heavily Sicilian-accented French into something translatable into English, it had missed the next bit.
While it raised difficulties with the guides, the fellow-passengers, being French, presented no such problem, so it worked out well in the end. We learned a lot about the people, not much about Sicily. Still, we decided our next trip would again be a French one – but in France. Which was how we settled on Bordeaux, (starting from Marseilles: a pleasant 2½ hour train trip from Nice followed by a slurp of the local specialty – bouillabaisse). After living in Nice, the southern accent shouldn’t prove a problem, we thought.
It was. French as spoken in Marseilles is not just another accent – it’s almost another language. Those lovely people on the trip might as well have been speaking Martian as Marseillais. What’s worse was that although they could understand our French, we couldn’t understand theirs. So after struggling through meal-time chat three times a day, we finally started missing meals to spare them the embarrassment. Bad for our French, but good for the weight.
Once again it worked out OK in the end because unlike Sicily, the guides, being from Bordeaux, spoke understandable French, so we learned a lot about Bordeaux, but not much about our fellow-travellers.

In the middle of this confusion, England played France in the semi-final of the Rugby World Cup – and, to our surprise and embarrassment, won. Unlike the French press - with headlines like “England’s Vain Hope” etc., these people could not have been more gracious, and we parted with everyone wishing us bon courage for the Final on Saturday. We’ll need it.

Ah yes! Didn't mention the other kind of immersion: Wine. Next time.

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