In my part of France the British have a reputation for renovating old houses with good taste. You only have to look at interior features in the regional glossy magazines to see that many Brits have invested time and love in creating homes to die for.
So when I invite French acquaintances to my home, I imagine they’re curious to see the effect of my magic English touch. Their curiosity must be strong to overcome the dread of being served English cuisine.
Those who accept my invitation may have their first misgiving when they arrive in front of my 1960s concrete house with its architectural pretensions to modernism. This isn’t the renovated stone ruin they’d imagined. Where are the blue wooden shutters and the climbing roses?
Well, there are plenty of roses, but they have a tendency to scramble pricklily (ok, this adverb doesn’t exist, but it should) over each other rather than wend upwards in trained curves. As for the shutters, I knew we shouldn’t have chosen the electric option. The broken one is permanently lowered, and its white metal slats don’t match the brown wooden shutters.
Inside, nothing has changed since the 1970s. We have planned to replace the purple flowery wallpaper and pale blue tiles in the bathroom. One day. And my daughter regularly nags me to change the diarrhoea-brown carpet in her bedroom. Never mind: we have cleverly disguised the wall coverings with the kids’ primary-school drawings.
Our French visitors won’t have anything cultural to relate to their families about the house’s nationality change. They may have a little more to say about the food. I’m very considerate about serving acceptable meals – though I once shocked guests when I offered them the beetroot juice I’d just made. They tend to relax as soon as I assure them that they won’t be forced to eat the dreaded jelly they remember from school trips to England.
The only real English part of their experience comes from my Word Challenge. There is a set of magnetic words on my fridge. I challenge my visitors to make at least one sentence in English before they leave.
I’m sure you know about Fridge Poetry. I first saw the concept years ago for French words. I bought a set for my French sister-in-law – and then spent many frustrating minutes sitting on the toilet and rearranging them on the side of her washing machine.
In French, there are too many conjugations to make the words versatile enough for satisfactory playing. English, however, is perfect.
The number of combinations you can make with a limited set of words never ceases to astound me. When an English speaker combines unlikely words, they can get a delightful feeling of liberation. The result is even richer in nuance when French people play with unfamiliar words.
French children love it. They make simple sentences (I am happy). French teenagers love it. They particularly like the words ‘cool’, ‘love’, ‘sweet’, ‘heart’ and ‘girl’. And once the adults realise their sentences don’t have to follow their schoolbook models (‘my tailor is rich’; ‘Brian is in the kitchen’), they have great fun. They creep to the fridge and, though they may come back with a full glass of Pineau, they have worked to deserve it.
Sometimes I have inspiring surprises: ‘smear pink mist on my breasts’, ‘sleep juice crushed on my tongue’, ‘feeling moon mad’, ‘petal of time’. And once I challenged a visiting musician to make a song from the phrases.
At the end of the soirée I pass the fridge to fill the glasses with cognac. The sentences have adventured from ‘my blue diamond is you’ to unrepeatable permutations of ‘blow’, ‘sausage’, ‘butt’, ‘drunk’, ‘breast’, ‘lick’, ‘finger’ and ‘lust’. My guests’ English vocabulary has taken a turn for the poetic.
They generally seem satisfied when they leave. They have had one true English experience without having to leave the safety of France. No jelly. No Branston pickle. No Marmite.
My poor French visitors: little do they know that when they’ve left, I cackle to myself and stir their words into my cauldron:
I am lazy and cool, my crush is on time.
Why someone like you?
You are my skin –
Raw beauty, bitter as rain
And a thousand symphonies together in the garden.
I could make a word with your smile.
This smooth feeling of shadow:
Kindness, or a special friend?
You are safe on the flower, luscious with happiness
Always mad in the sun.
Beautiful woman, love, hug, whisper:
Do you have petals when you swim?
My chocolate diamond, my sweet drunk monkey.
I drool over your honey butt.
Though we enjoy sausage together, you
Eat my egg head to blood.
I heart you, my friend.