One can take a train directly from CDG airport to practically anywhere inFrance. When we learned that we could get directly from CDG toPoitiers in less than two hours, we were quite happy. It was convenient and not too tiring, straight after our long flight. The train departed from Paris… and stopped in about half an hour, in the middle of nowhere. Then it slowly moved, though we had no idea where it was going, nor why the going was slow. In a couple of hours, we discovered that we arrived to Gare de Lyon, Paris! The train stopped, the radio crackled into life, and a long tirade followed, in French. All I managed to understand was the very last sentence, “Non ouvrir des portes!” Not to open the doors. Then the train started on its mysterious way again, leaving the city behind, only to stop again in the middle of another nowhere. A new, or probably the same long announcement came out of the loudspeaker, in French. There was a general hubbub. Passengers were discussing something excitedly, sending text messages, making phone calls, with us sitting in the middle of the carriage, trying to make sense of what was going on. It was clear that one had to take action. I got up and said as loudly as I could, “Excuse me, does anybody speak English?”


Then, right across the aisle from us, a teen girl began nudging her mother, hissing at her, glancing at us. The woman blushed, and confessed in a whisper that she could indeed speak “some English”. She haltingly explained to us that there was an accident somewhere en route to Poitiers, a freight train derailed it seemed, so our train was taking a circuitous route. But are we going to get to our destination?! Qui. Yes. A new announcement came at this point, I got “Non ouvrir des portes!” The daughter lost some of her shyness, she concentrated, blushed and told us, “We… stay… ici, dans le train”. Once the girl spoke, a sort of miracle happened: the whole carriage full of people seemed to suddenly realize that while the delay was unpleasant to everybody, it was perhaps doubly so for us, as we did not understand what was said. Men and women began talking among themselves, pointing at us, coming up to say a few words, to smile, even to shake hands with us. Absolutely everyone tried to say something in English by way of encouragement, including a middle-aged man who kept saying, “Football – le sport!”

We spent six hours total in that carriage. When the train crawled into some station, railway employees rushed in with trays of food and drink, which were very welcome. When my husband turned on his computer and men discovered that he had some episodes of “Mister Bean” TV show, they clustered around to watch, and laughed uproariously. Luckily this show does not need a translation! Several women got together around me. We managed to exchange quite a lot of information about our families and children; they taught me how to greet people correctly in French, and how to say Good-bye. At a guess, all the passengers who traveled with us that day remembered all the English they had had at school, and most probably never used since. When we finally arrived at our destination, the whole carriage erupted with, “Poitiers!”, clearly for our benefit. We said Good-bye and Thanks, smiled and waved, and parted like friends.

How can one revive one’s language, remember the skills learned a long time ago? Nobody invented a better way than reading. If you want to remember the foreign language that you had studied at school, take a book. Choose well: if you like thrillers, don’t read a romance; if you prefer romances, don’t take a detective story. Keep a dictionary to hand. Ideally, one should also write out the new (or forgotten) words, as many times as it takes for a word to sink in. Let me warn you: page 1 will be a nightmare. You will probably have to check the meaning of every word in a dictionary, but for the articles! By page 10 you will notice that you are reading whole sentences. Persevere till page 50, that is when you will really start reading. The main difficulty, naturally, is to make oneself continue reading to the end. But the result is worth it. You will be able to remember a lot of words and constructions, and to use them when the need arises.

This is one of the episodes which happen in the life of any human being. While you are actually in it, it’s not too enjoyable. But later on, you may like to share it with friends, and even laugh at it. I am grateful to all those people who overcame their language barrier to help us on that journey. Special thanks go to Mister Bean, a.k.a. Rowan Atkinson.


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