This time last year there was a crisis in the Provencal village of Lourmarin. According to tradition on the last Saturday before Christmas, Pere Noel would make a special trip to give presents to the children of the village. And because his reindeer were always resting up for Christmas proper, Pere Noel would choose an alternative method of transport. In the past he has arrived by helicopter, motorbike and slightly less glamorously scooter. Last year as I mentioned there was a problem. The village elder tasked with the role of donning the red suit and beard had hung up his jingle bells and nobody had volunteered to replace him.
Expecting to be passed over in favour of another, better, last-minute candidate I offered my services. The next day to my surprise the outfit was duly delivered to my door. I borrowed a go-kart from a friend for Santa’s arrival and started practicing my ‘ho ho ho’ with the silent French ‘h’.
At 3pm on Saturday 20th December I was ready, pillow stuffed down my jumper, white fluffy beard tickling my chin, red suit, and my wife’s woolly black slipper boots. I revved the engine of the go-cart and off I went.Within moments, the whole event nearly went terribly wrong when, with my vision obscured by the all engulfing white beard I nearly crashed into a passing car. The insurance claim of the other motorist would have made interesting reading: ‘There I was minding my own business, when suddenly Pere Noel came flying round the bend on the wrong side of the road. No sign of a sleigh, he was in a go-cart, if only the damn thing could have flown, we might not have rammed each other….’
After the near miss, things improved, or so I thought. Upon arriving at the school gates I was surrounded by a crowd of children and with the help of the Mayor I handed each of them a present. I knelt down and had a chat with the smaller children liberally interspersing French ‘ho ho ho’ with my small talk. Half an hour later I was heading back up the road in my buggy, beard pulled low so that I could see where I was going.
For most of this year I have been looking back very fondly on the memory. In many ways it seemed to symbolise my complete integration into village society. The fact that I could play Santa without the children noticing anything out of the ordinary also boosted my confidence in spoken French. In short for much of this year, I have walked with something of a swagger through the village streets. Everybody knew that I, Pere Noel, was chums with the Mayor, and so fluent in French that I could fool their children. It felt good.
Then last week, I overheard the following conversation in the playground opposite the school:
‘I suspect it’s because he is from the North Pole’
Kid smiling, ‘That’s why I didn’t understand a word he said last year, I don’t speak North Polish’
This conversation disturbed me so much that I once again signed up for French lessons. My teacher is a close friend who knows our family well. She is also, as it turns out, not afraid to deliver honest truths.
‘Jamie, your French is technically very good. I would say 75% of what you say is grammatically faultless.’
I sat back and relaxed, the criticism from the child in the playground had bothered me all week. No longer.
‘But Jamie, your accent is terrible, it is only because I know you that I understand what you say.’
I shook my head unwilling to take the criticism ‘Give me a ‘phrase’ I pronounce badly’ I challenged.
My friend dissolved into giggles.
‘What’s so funny?’
‘You have just asked me to give you a strawberry (fraise) you get wrong.’
Needless to say I am now signed up to French lessons every week, and there is a new Santa arriving on December 21st.
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