The immediate background to this metamorphosis was straightforward. Some weeks earlier my wife had asked what I wanted for my birthday. I plumped for lessons in French conversation. The reasons were simple. First, I was soon to retire from work and was looking for a serious intellectual pursuit to ‘keep my mind occupied’. Second, we had just brought a house in France and my French was embarrassingly poor. I knew bits and was adept at pointing, but conversation was out of the question. The dividends of my fifty-year old ‘O’-level French had long expired. The problem I envisaged then was that without a good grasp of French, staying in France would always be hollow. Studying French would satisfy both of these challenges.
On my birthday my wife told me that she had found a course at the Institute Français and that I had been enrolled for twelve, 90- minute, lessons starting in a fortnight or so. But there was more; in order for the Institute to tailor the course to my needs, I would first need to take a French competency test. This was arranged for the coming weekend (Saturday morning at 11.00am to be precise!). My heart sank. I felt distinctly uneasy. Indeed my concerns were so obvious that my wife immediately offered to accompany me to the Institute. There was to be no backtracking now.
On the Saturday we set off in good time and holding hands. We spent the train journey in silence, although my mind was anything but. Did I really want to learn French, to subject myself to a test, to reveal my ignorance, possibly to be ridiculed? Surely I was too old for that. Would there be others there who would sail through? I had not sat a test for probably 30 years, why expose myself now? Why subject myself to the loneliness of humiliation?
Gradually my sense of disquiet increased, and as we neared, the negative thoughts displaced those original reasoned arguments. For whatever reason, I adopted the manner of a child taken to his first day at school, just as I must have done 60 years earlier, although then it would have been with my father. I walked slowly, dragged my feet, and sulkily looked down to the ground. I felt that I was half my wife’s size (as I would have done with my father). Moreover, using words of one syllable told her I did not want to do the test. I would have turned back. Next we walked up the steps to the Institute and, as befits a parent, my wife spoke on my behalf, introduced me and with an ‘understanding’ (condescending) look the receptionist took me to assessment room. She explained what I had to do (written and oral!), and left. I was alone – it was all just awful.
I completed the test, regained adulthood, and started the course a week later. Since then I have been to classes at the Institute almost every week without a break. It was so very right for me. I love my French which occupies an important part of my retirement and has indeed made France a most wonderful experience. What a waste it would have been if I had been allowed to give in to my childhood fantasies. But I imagine battles between the adult self and the childhood self are commonplace. On this occasion it was so very blatant, and potentially so very damaging.