Lessons in French life

Joining a language course in the Vend�e gave Charlotte Crawford a true flavour of both the landscape and the people of l’Hexagone

Fran�oise Duffell’s courses at her ch�teau in the Vend�e offer an attractive mixture of classroom tuition, practical advice and outside activities. Her groups are small (never more than six students) and organised to accommodate the students’ level and interest. My group wanted just a taste of France, so we met French and English locals. The next arrivals comprised students planning to work and live in l’Hexagone, so their sessions were to involve estate agents, lawyers and bank managers.

One Monday in February, I arrived at Le Poiron in the late afternoon and was immediately charmed by the ivy-covered ch�teau, set in ten hectares of grounds on the outskirts of the village of Pissotte. After unpacking in my studio bedroom above the old stable block I met my three classmates: a married couple, Anna and Michael, who had inherited a house near Le Mans, and Joanna, who worked for a travel company and needed to improve her French for career reasons. Each course runs from Monday afternoon to Saturday morning and Fran�oise first wanted to assess our levels and needs. We were then each given a Le Robert & Collins dictionary and exercise book, and told to watch the France 2 TV channel at 7.50 next morning, making notes on the weather forecast and news headlines.

Early that evening, over a glass of Domaine Coirier Pissotte before supper, we met Fran�oise’s English husband Mark and heard a little about their life and the challenges they have faced since Fran�oise’s Vend�en mother persuaded them to buy Le Poiron estate. Fran�oise had been living and teaching in High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire and Mark, who worked in the music business, had been travelling endlessly. Now they are established at the 14th-century Le Poiron, once one of the Vend�e’s most celebrated ch�teaux.

A fire devastated the top floor in the 1970s and it had been left in a state of disrepair. Previous owners had repaired the damaged outbuildings, but had done little to the house which Mark has now converted. He has restored a number of outbuildings, as well as creating chambres d’h�tes and a grand g�te that can sleep 29 and is used for groups in the summer. Fran�oise, meanwhile, has created and runs Le Poiron Bonjour school.

At breakfast, when questioned about our television viewing, I was relieved to find that nobody had found the exercise easy. We were classed as intermediate students and had to start with the basics. Even though we all thought we spoke and understood French quite well, we began by reviewing such simple matters as how to pronounce the alphabet correctly: H as in ‘ash’, Y as ‘ee-grec’, and G pronounced ‘jay’ etc. Over a challenging morning we learnt there was much we didn’t know about even the most basic French.

We broke for lunch at 1pm and sat in front of the ch�teau, with lovely views over the fields, complete with resident pet donkeys and horses. It was a relief that, rather than return to the classroom immediately, we were to practise our French and cooking skills with Madeleine, who spoke no English and had a secret we were invited to discover during the afternoon. There is a small professional kitchen in one of the stable buildings and Madeleine had brought clear instructions – only in French – on how to prepare our supper. She talked happily in French, double-checking we had understood at each stage of the proceedings.

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Michael took control of our gratin de cabillaud aux champignons; Anna was detailed to skin and cut the mushrooms; Joanna made Madeleine’s version of tarte aux pommes and I was left baking, peeling, deseeding and cutting red peppers before finely slicing almost a bulb’s worth of garlic cloves for our salad starter. We worked well, happily coordinated by Madeleine who encouraged us to chat and try to find out her secret. It was fun and a well-arranged exercise, with Madeleine giving us confidence by gently correcting our sometimes faltering French.

With supper complete and the kitchen cleared, it was back to the classroom to have a recap before starting work on different grammatical terms and rules. We covered conjunctions, adjectives and adverbs, ran through basic verbs, and discussed tenses and their uses. All these things were simple and easily mastered, of course – until we tried to use them in the heat of French conversation.

Supper was a success; Madeleine’s recipes and our joint cooking efforts had worked well. The fish main course and apple pies were delicious and my red pepper salad was tasty – even if, marinated in garlic as it was, we had to pray for anyone we met the following day.

Fran�oise wants her students to gain a greater understanding of France and French life. Although Anna and Michael had their newly inherited house in Le Mans, neither Joanna nor I were interested in the property market, so we met French and English people living and working in the area, many of whom had met Fran�oise through the courses. One evening we met Francophile Helena who, with secretarial staff in England, runs her business while living in France. Over one lunch we met Dee and Curtis – she a specialist cancer nurse and her husband a retired police inspector –who had set up a small business, cleaning and maintaining holiday g�tes.

Struggle with grammar

Reporting on the French television weather and news became easier over the following mornings and therefore the breakfast was more enjoyable, although oddly competitive between students. Through the morning we struggled to improve our grammar and master some sort of knowledge about which nouns were masculine, which feminine.

After lunch on the Wednesday we visited the nearby Abbaye Saint-Vincent de Nieul-sur-l’Autise and its neighbouring Maison d’Ali�nor museum devoted to Eleanor of Aquitaine. Armed with a complicated French questionnaire, we spoke nothing but French to each other and to Madeleine, who was our driver, during the whole afternoon. We first saw the abbey church where in the 13th century the Abbot had worked to drain and dry the unhealthy bogs, push back the sea and help to create the marshlands of the Marais Poitevin, the eastern part of which is known as Venise Verte. We then visited the refurbished cloisters, where an exterior footbridge has been concealed behind a contemporary fa�ade, and several Romanesque instruments are on display which light up and play as visitors pass.

Back in class later that Wednesday afternoon working on verbs, vocabulary and tests, both Joanna and I were struggling. I gather this is the common ‘third-day blues’, which even Francoise’s optimistic ministering and a delicious supper only just managed to dispel.

After an early breakfast on Thursday we went to Niort, capital of the neighbouring Deux-S�vres d�partement, to buy supper from a French market overflowing with fresh fish, meat and cheese as well as fruits, flowers and vegetables. Armed with a list of ten items – such as “une tranche de farci poitevin pour trois personnes (demandez la recette et si c’est un plat adapt� aux v�g�tariens)’’ – we persuaded each stallholder to give us a recipe (I suspect they are very used to eager but inept students) and were elated to be shopping � la fran�aise.

Market lunch

After our fresh market lunch of p�t�, fresh bread, cheese, betterave rouge (beetroot) and un beau radis noir (a beautiful black radish) the afternoon lessons seemed infinitely more appealing.

In our last class we went over what we had worked on already, then tackled yet more verbs, tenses and additional rules of vocabulary. We were all taking notes about the books, iPhone apps, exercises and websites we would need to help maintain our progress and vowed to meet again at another of Fran�oise’s courses later in the year. There is still hard work to be done.And Madeleine’s kitchen secret? I won’t spoil the surprise in case you too decide to take a course at Le Poiron Bonjour.

GETTING THERE

By rail: Charlotte travelled with Rail Europe from London to Niort via Paris (tel: 08448 484 064, www.raileurope.co.uk).

By air: The nearest airport is La Rochelle. See Holiday Planner on page 88.

By road: Pissotte is a three-and-a-half-hour drive from the ferry port at Saint-Malo and just over four hours from Caen. See Holiday Planner on page 88.

WHERE TO STAY

Le Poiron Bonjour

Ch�teau le Poiron

85200 Pissotte

Tel: (Fr) 2 51 69 20 27, (UK) 01494 529 152 or 07742 967 775

www.france4life.co.uk

The residential courses cater for all levels and cost �799 (�1,299 for a couple), which includes full-board accommodation, all activities, tuition and lectures.

WHERE TO VISIT

Try travelling to the Vend�e a week early to be able to enjoy this lovely area and get accustomed to France before the course begins. Le Poiron Bonjour has holiday g�tes for rent.

Marais Poitevin

These marshlands, covering 970 sq km, are a haven for wildlife and worth exploring by boat, by bike or on foot. The most popular area is ‘Venise Verte’ between Maill� and Niort, a land of tree-lined canals and farms. www.marais- poitevin.com

Abbaye Saint-Vincent de Nieul-sur-l’Autise

1 All�e du Clo�tre

85240 Nieul-sur-l’Autise

Tel: (Fr) 2 51 50 43 03

http://abbayes.vendee.fr/nieul/default.asp

Abbaye de Maillezais

85420 Maillezais

Tel: (Fr) 2 51 87 22 80

http://abbayes.vendee.fr/maillezais/default.asp

Two Romanesque abbeys in the south of the Vend�e.

Fontenay-le-Comte

This Ville d’art et d’histoire is known for its Renaissance architecture.

www.ville-fontenay lecomte.fr

Tel: (Fr) 2 51 69 44 99

www.tourisme-sudvendee.com