Learning a language while having fun (Episode 2)

Evening classes French 

In the village in the center of Flanders where I lived in my childhood, the official language is Dutch (Flemish).  Know that in Belgium there are three official languages, Dutch, French and German.  As I mentioned before I was not a very good student at school and certainly not in languages.  I had a lot of difficulties with French, which we had only for 2 hours per week, I also didn’t see the added value a language can bring to one’s life.  Getting oriented into technical studies speaking French was out of my scope for a while, but when growing up and becoming more adult I started realizing that if I would like to make more chances in the job market and earn a better income, I would better start taking it seriously to learn the language of love.

Let’s put my creativity to work and find a way to learn a language I must have thought, I subscribed myself to an evening course to learn French.  I still didn’t like studying a language in a traditional way but I couldn’t come up with something different at that moment.  The lessons were rather boring but the atmosphere was positive and the people I met, quickly became very good friends.  It was after the first lesson that Bruno asked us all to go for a drink for his birthday in the local bar, where our friendships started.  Bruno was like a big brother to me, also the funny guy in the class, he became my example.  He was about 10 years older than myself and already having a job while I was still in the middle of my studies.  For the five to ten years following we would stay very close friends and spent a lot of time together.  On weekends, parties, going out, holidays, hobbies, you name it.  We still have contact but as we live more than 200 kilometers from each other we do not meet as often as we would like.  As a coincidence, 2 weeks ago he came on his bicycle to say hello and drove back, he did more than 400 kilometers that day, crazy but determined to accomplish his objectives.

He is extravert and I am more introverted.  When going out with him he taught me how to get more social, and how to get along with girls I wanted to get to know.   I got more self-confidence and I overcame the fear to step to the girl sitting at the bar.  We had a really good time together with lots of fun.

Au pair from Hungary

It was after a few weeks following the evening course that a Hungarian girl showed up.  She was working as “au pair” for a family in the village, she spoke Hungarian obviously, and a little mouth of French.  From the first time we saw us there was a connection and she became my girlfriend, I suddenly got very motivated to study French.  I remember we struggled a lot to communicate but our vocabulary grew quickly, we made mistakes for sure but we didn’t care, we wanted to get to know each other better.  She was a passionate skater and on Sundays we went to the “Mont des Arts” (Mountain of Arts) in Brussels to practice our tricks.  I wasn’t a very good skater myself but liked the community and clothing style.

Once the course came to its end the time came for my girlfriend to return to her home country.  We continued to have contact by mail (traditional it was 1996 and was not yet available everywhere) but we finally broke up our relationship.

Adventure calls, South Africa or French Riviera?
More or less at the same time the university where I followed classes organized charity work-vacation in the South of Africa to build a monastery for the local monks.  As the number of participants was limited, we had to write an application.  After a few weeks I got the news that I and some other classmates were selected for the trip to South-Africa.

As I broke up with my Hungarian girlfriend, I was also looking for other ways to improve my French.  She was “au pair” in Belgium so I thought why not try the same but in France.  I wrote to different organizations and waited for them to get back to me with more information.  One organization called me. They had a request from a French single man, retired and living in the South of France looking for somebody to help him out with daily tasks.  He was passionate about cooking for his friends and needed hands in the kitchen, also he needed help to clean the house and maintain the garden.  In exchange for my labor he would pay for my French lessons that I would take every morning on weekdays.  I was surprised and excited at the same because this was a completely different proposal than I had expected.

The Choice

Now I ended up with two interesting projects for the summer ahead, going 3 weeks to South-Africa to help build a monastery or going 2 months to the South of France to help a retired man with different kinds of jobs.   It was a very difficult choice to make, I even looked to combine them but this was not possible.  I finally chose to go to France.  I remember the university wasn’t very happy with my decision but for me it was the right choice to make because my goal was to learn French which would have not been the case when flying to South-Africa.

French Riviera, here we come

Summer of 1997, arrangements were made and I was all set for the adventure. I was excited and nervous at the same time, what to expect?  Would monsieur Maccario be nice to me?  Would it be possible to communicate in French?  The time came to leave for France, I had my own car and we arranged that I would pick him up at his apartment in Paris.  After driving over the Belgian-French border I got completely disconnected and submerged into another world and language.  After a few kilometers in the country, the radio station only played in French and I arrived at the first toll station, the adventure really begun.

We met in Paris and he asked me to drive him to visit a friend who had an antique store in the city center. We got acquainted during our lunch together and after that we perused our journey direction South.  Monsieur Maccario was passionate about antiques and old books, he specialized in emptying old houses.  People contacted him when they wanted to empty a house, he bought the complete content, kept the items with value for his store and sold the rest to people in his network.  Our first stop driving South was in Vichy, a city known for its thermal sources, we stopped at another house he bought to take some stuff and continued for the end destination that day.   We arrived in Riom, a small middle age village in the center of France close to Clermont-Ferrand.  By its history and its built heritage the city was classified as “Pays d’art et d’histoire”.  Here we stayed for about a week in his house in the city center.  The house which had an antique shop at the ground floor had to be prepared for an event or festival that took place in the village.  I don’t remember very well but it was a fun time.  I went to the typical morning market to get a fresh French baguette for breakfast.   My knowledge and culture about French food and cuisine was non existing and every day I discovered something new, the food was fantastic, except for the strong taste of goat cheese toast that wasn’t my cup of tea.  In the week we stayed in the region we visited different places, we went to visit the volcano park with a drive on the Puy-de-Dôme, we visited the city of Clermont-Ferrand, we have done a guided tour in the Volvic museum.  When at his house and antique shop we cleaned, we arranged stuff and I helped him to repair and refurbish old chairs.  I cannot say that the few hours per day I had been helping him, it felt like working, we had a good time together and I was learning French at the same time.

After a week we left Riom behind and set final course to Beaulieu-sur-Mer where we stayed the rest of the holiday season.  On the road we stopped in Avignon to visit the city and famous “Palais des Papes”.  We arrived in Beaulieu-sur-Mer which means “nice place at the seaside”.  I couldn’t believe my eyes, the automatic gate of the property opened and we drove up to the driveway, in front of me a big villa with view on the beach called “Baie des Fourmis”.  Although the room I got didn’t have sea sight it could have been much worse to stay for the coming weeks.  The temperature was perfect and the sky was blue, it didn’t rain a single day for the almost 2 months I lived in paradise.

Monsieur Maccario

Who was this mysterious guy called Monsieur Maccario?  He never told much about himself, he was single, no children, born in a rich family.  He told me that when he was young, he drove with his father through the Alps with a Rolls Royce car, apparently one of the first of that kind in France at that time.  I could never have guessed that he was that rich, he was very modest and didn’t care about material things too much, he was not showing his wealth.  Although he was living alone, I know that many people adored him.  It was more than once that he asked me to buy flowers and deliver them to women, he knew.  One day he gave me an address in Monaco, which is about 20 minutes driving, to deliver flowers.  Arriving there, a lady opened the door and was really happy, she tipped me generously.  I remember having parked in the underground between some nice collectors and hypercars.

Mister Maccario was passionate about old books and antiques, his house was stuffed with objects of all kinds, he was authoritarian, and what he wanted had to be done and this better sooner than later.  He was kind, but keeping a certain distance.  He insisted that I addressed him in the third person, that felt kind of weird but I got used to it.  In France you mainly speak in the third person to people that are older than you.  People could get offended not doing it.

Every morning before going to the French classes I prepared the break-fast table, made fresh orange juice and cleaned the kitchen.  Most of the time I left the house before he woke up.  I had my car but preferred to take the bicycle to go to Nice, it was only about 15 km and allowed me to enjoy the nice roads along the coast.  We had classes from 8 till 10 am, after that we spent time together with the other students, most of the time we went to the beach till 12 am and then I returned to my room.  In the afternoon after mister Maccario’s daily siesta we worked in the garden.  The people I met during the course were all people with more or less my age, all there to learn French.  We spent good time together, we went out in the evening, to the beach on weekends, I never imagined that learning a language was so much fun.  I am an introverted person but my confidence got a boost, I met many people and I made friends, we even kept contact after that joyful summer.

Life is now!

For me this adventure is something I will never forget, and when I tell my friends about it, they see me getting excited thinking back at that time.  It may sound silly but it really changed my life and opened doors, not at that moment but years after that adventure I am still picking the fruits from this experience.

After this fantastic summer I decided to continue my studies and start a master in industrial science. I already had a bachelor degree and many of my friends decided to start their professional careers but I wanted to push myself further and prove to my parents, friends and family that I was capable of getting that engineering master degree.

In life you need to be creative.  If you keep doing what you do, you keep getting what you get.  Getting out of my comfort zone and taking on new challenges with an open spirit brought me much further in life.  Don’t waste your time and take action, life is now!

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