A slightly smaller version of the living room stove was to be found in the bedroom which was large enough to accommodate a single, and a large double bed with three or four mattresses piled up on it. I did vaguely formulate a plan to sleep alternately in both for the first few nights with the idea of permanently appropriating the more comfortable of the two. With this in mind I asked my eccentric friend whether I could remove the mattresses – whereupon he pointed out with what I suspected to be sadistic delight that ‘the double bed was where la vieille Marthe breathed her last breath!’ With a shudder I abandoned the idea .
To my immense relief the bedroom poêle showed much less inclination to smoke. As winter set in, however, a problem of another kind arose. Though I used to stoke it up just before going to bed, the wood soon burned itself out, and after three hours or so, despite a thick wadding of eiderdowns and blankets which kept body, legs and arms nice and warm, the effects on my head of direct exposure to the rapidly-falling temperature woke me up. For in this part of France there reigns a semi-continental climate of extremes with baking summers and freezing winters. And during anti-cyclonic weather the temperature would regularly descend to -25° degrees or more during the night. I informed my friend of this and, being a man of a practical inclination, he suggested that the answer might lie in me purchasing a balaclava helmet. This I did, and from then on my nights were undisturbed. Getting up in the morning, however, was rather like joining the contents of a deep-freeze cabinet.
Beyond the bedroom there was a tiny, triangular-shaped room with a large window and a glass roof – a sort of mini conservatory which you entered through a heavy, glass-paneled door. I don’t remember much about what was in it but I do recall the window and roof being riddled with bullet holes dating, I was informed, from World War 2. Apparently, there had been a pocket of German resistance in the village (my exchange partner’s father had lived though it all) and the advancing Americans had responded by raking the back wall of the farm with machine-gun fire.
Another not negligible inconvenience arose from the fact that there was no running hot water – which obliged me to heat up a large pan full every morning on the butane gas cooker before being able to wash and shave. The remaining drops were used to make a cup of instant coffee. This was particularly painful when I was time-tabled to begin my first lesson at eight, for since the village was some half hour’s drive from my school it meant rising at half past six. However, the fact that this only happened twice a week prompted me to bless the good fortune of the fully-qualified French teacher with whom I was assimilated. In my English school we were obliged to stay on the premises from 8.45 to 12.00 and from 2.00 to 4.15, regardless of whether we had lessons or not. And even though we did have free periods, these were frequently occupied by marking or substituting for absent teachers. In my lycée, on the other hand, a teacher holding the C.A.P.E.S. (the equivalent of an English Diploma in Education) had only 18 one hour lessons per week, and those with the Agrégation (a more advanced teaching qualification) even fewer. And once you’d finished teaching nothing stopped you from going straight home. This most of the teachers did. Having a ‘good’ timetable, therefore, (which everyone aspired to, and which, as far as I could see, was attributed to the more senior staff) consisted in having your 18 teaching hours concentrated over three working days, for this meant you were free to stay at home for the rest of the week. Though most teachers justified this by maintaining that a good part of these non-teaching days was spent marking or preparing future lessons, it certainly wasn’t the case with my eccentric German teacher. In addition, the country children I taught were placid and calm – unlike the frequently disruptive pupils of my urban English school (where my French exchange partner only just managed to survive), who had to be held in an iron hand.
My main goal during this teacher exchange year was, of course, to improve my everyday spoken French which, though allowing me to participate in conversations of a reasonably advanced nature, was sadly lacking in idiomatic speech. Determined to fill what I considered to be this deplorable gap, I adopted the habit of recording all the colloquialisms I heard in a dedicated notebook, and then taking advantage of the slightest opportunity to employ them in the situations of everyday life. I had soon gathered quite an impressive collection of expressions like ‘se jeter un godet derrière la cravate’ (to knock back a jar or two) ‘faire du lèche-vitrines’ (to do some window shopping) along with such sexist remarks as ‘elle a du monde au balcon’ (what a pair of knockers she’s got). I was even taught one or two chansons paillardes (rugby songs). On one occasion, however, I was made to realize that my policy of opportunistic application was not without danger.
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