Castle has magnetic appeal

IT’S taken me nearly seven months but I’ve finally made it. I’ve been to Carcassonne.

Described as one of the great sights of the Midi Pyrenees, Carcassonne is where everyone takes their visitors so my mother Sue and her chum Eve, over for the weekend, proved the catalyst to get on the train and take in a spot of medieval France.

A great citadel perched on a rocky outcrop, there is no doubt that Carcassonne is an impressive sight. You can walk round the battlements, largely restored from near derelict in the 1800s, admire the scenery, soak up the atmosphere, and buy a fridge magnet just to make sure anyone who goes into your fridge knows you’ve been there.

Only down the road from Toulouse where I have an appartment with street views (immediate) and ceilings (high), Carcassonne is one of those must see places.

I don’t know much about the Cathars - they lived there years ago - but there’s a huge number of restaurants, Sue enjoyed her tomato and mozzarella salad in the sparkling April sunshine, so they must have liked to eat out.

Obviously, I wanted to show off my French to my guests but everywhere I walked into I was spoken to in English, most frustrating now I’m having lessons and can do more than buy fours stamps to England and a croissant.

Indeed, this last week I’d just got my head round the subjunctive - well, sort of-ish and don’t ask me to explain it - when the past conditional reared its elegantly constructed head. If I were a native it would have been simple, of course.

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But for those of you who have ever studied a language you’ll know that it can be an uphill struggle. My French lessons, currently occupying both a Monday and a Wednesday evening, have opened my eyes to how much more work I have yet to do.

It’s strange but I’m at an odd stage where I can understand more than I can say. Yet when I arrived here it was the reverse was true.

This week we’ve been listening to conversations with the text in front of us and filling in missing words - it sounds a lot more simple than it is. And each time we discuss something I’ve noticed the most irksome thing. As soon as I’ve thought of something half intelligent to say the discussion has moved on and what I wanted to say is totally irrelevant.

It used to happen to me in English as well.

Anyway, if you want to practice your English and ever get the chance to visit Carcassonne make sure you do. Apparently Her Majesty has even stayed there - she probably wanted to compare a French castle to her own - and they don’t take her just anywhere do they? She probably needed a fridge magnet.

---THE mystery of my local wig shop, which becomes a bar in the evenings, has been puzzling me for some time.

By day a normal retail outlet for toupees, syrups and hair extensions - by night a lively watering hole - this place has intrigued me since I moved in to my Toulousain flat with street views (immediate) and ceilings (high).

Last week I decided there was nothing for it but to go along and find out what it’s all about.

So I asked a few questions. The gentleman with whom I engaged in conversation said it wasn’t really a bar for the Senegalese locals, as I previously thought, as it didn’t have a licence or formal things like that. Apparently the shop, he told me as if it were obvious, is more of an informal community centre for French and English speakers from all over the world.

That’s that cleared up then.

--- IN MY weekly Suffolk Man Abroad column last week, as regular readers will know, I happened to mention that I had been learning some French slang words.

The other afternoon I found myself practicing my newly discovered words with my friend Sophie, who’s French and speaks it like a native. She said I was doing very well at sounding vulgar, which I took as a compliment.

Naturally, keen to show off the best of British, I tried to teach Sophie a little Cockney Rhyming Slang.

I explained the idea and then gave her a few choice phrases.

“My appartment doesn’t have any apples and pears,” I said.

Sophie looked quizzical for a few moments and then, to my amusement, replied: “Ah yes I can ‘ardley Adam and Eve it.”

--- OF course, I sometimes miss my small flat with sea views (distant) in the Edwardian Spa town of Felixstowe where I had made my home but Toulouse is so full of interesting things and the pastry is very good here in France.

In fact, I happened to be on the other side of town from where I live the other weekend when a friend pointed out what is apparently the smallest house in Toulouse.

Isn’t that fascinating?

--- JAMES’ Mailbag:-

Dear Readers,

This week two ladies called Patricia have put finger to keyboard and dropped me a line. Not that I’m vain or needy but I do like to receive the occasional missive that isn’t a bill don’t you?

If you’d like to drop me a line feel free, my email address is


Dear James,

I am enjoying reading about your adventures in France. I am currently attending French Improvers classes and as I took my “O” level in 1968 and the French I have spoken since has been along the lines of “un tasse de caf� s’il vous plait” there is plenty of room for improvement. We are enjoying it though and our teacher Karen is very brave and determined! I have got some extra reading to do at them moment in the form of a Mr Men book, well Madame Vite-Fait actually, which is turning out to be harder that I expected!

By the way don’t give up with the sport, lots of us have been damaged by school PE (mostly mentally) but eventually found some form of exercise we liked, probably not involving teams or frost covered playing fields but there are alternatives. I now like swimming and walking and I only occasionally have nightmares of my PE teacher shouting at me on the hockey pitch to ”get out on the wing” whatever that meant!

Kind regards,

Patricia Hall

Dear James

J’espere que tout va bien en Toulouse? (I hope all goes well in Toulouse)

Loved your column about the French lesson today. I must admit when I worked in Paris I picked up some dreadful habits - with the language, bien sur!

Enjoy May Day celebrations :-)

Pat Bridges

Waldingfield (Little)