“Each morning at approximately 8.45am any number of yummy mummies, trolling their kids and dogs across the balding sward of Clapham Common might witness this curious spectacle: a tall, slightly cadaverous man, pacing along at speed and ignoring the Jack Russell that nips at his heels while addressing an invisible interlocutor in heavily London-accented French.
“‘Non, elle n’est pas allée dans un magasin de chaussures,’ he tells his inner demons, and then, ‘Elle lui a dit bonjour’. Yes, it is indeed me, listening yet again to Chapitre Dix of the Berlitz audio tape. Indeed, I have listened to it so many times already that despite these playlets being brief and purely instructional I have come to harbour strange ideas about their characters.
“Take Sylvie Féraud, for example. It’s she who regularly cruises past Paris Modes during her lunch hour, and who ‘a vu un tailleur dans la vitrine’. She’s a haughty miss, Sylvie, and thinks herself several cuts above the sales assistant. When the poor girl says the suit she’s tried on is ‘merveilleux’, Sylvie almost snarls back, ‘Mm, c’est vrai, mais je trouve que la jupe est un peu courte pour le bureau.’ Hm, I’d like to take that Sylvie Féraud down a peg or two – if only my French were up to the job.
“But it just isn’t. I’m still keeping on with my lessons, and my teacher, Arlette, persists in taking me forward at a brisk pace. We’re on to the conditional tense now, so, if I had been in Paris last weekend I would’ve been able to liberally insult Sylvie Féraud – would’ve, were it not for the fact that I need Arlette to coach me through every temporal and hypothetical convolution, pursing her lips and gesturing frantically, as if by so doing she could force my tongue to dance like a faun in l’après-midi.”
Read the rest of the third part of Will Self’s Guardian Education series here.