Tour de France (3) – Sharif Gemie

Tour de France: Blog 3

Speaking in French

I’m in the Breton capital of Rennes, enjoying an unexpected heatwave. I’m here to give a lecture in French on some of the research carried out by myself, Fiona Reid, Laure Humbert and Louise Rees for Outcast Europe. Despite the fact that I’ve been learning French for 45 years, I still find speaking French in public very difficult. The golden rule seems to be that about half your ability to speak a foreign language in an approximately correct manner disappears once you stand up in front of an audience. I’ve also learnt that the idea of just reading out a written text absolutely does not work: I just get more tongue-tied. So, my current strategy is to come with lots of pictures and almost no notes. I’ve rehearsed the paper three times, and I do know the material well: I’m going to discuss UNRRA, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (1943-47), arguably the great-grandfather of all international relief agencies.

I’m attending a small research workshop, organised by Ronan Le Coadic, an old Breton friend of mine. The first speaker talks about Aimé Césaire, a theorist of Black culture in the Caribbean. There’s then a two-hour lunch break, with wine (this is France). Then it’s my turn. Surprisingly, I’m not really nervous. There’s a slight hitch when I realize that the powerpoint images will be projected via an Apple not a PC, but even this only takes a few seconds. As I speak, I do stumble frequently: sometimes I just forget words, and I have to think quickly of different ways to say the same thing. Quite often I forget how to say words, even though I’ve got a type of mental record of their pronunciation. But the idea of using pictures works well: while I stumble, the audience looks at the pictures.

The discussion afterwards is surprisingly positive and very long (over an hour). None of the audience has ever heard of UNRRA: they’re intrigued by my stories of earnest middle-class idealists arriving in Germany to solve all the problems left by the Second World War. They’re particularly interested in the contributions by the Quakers. It’s all over by 4.15pm; we pack up and then I walk round Rennes with Ronan.

On Monday, I’ll be doing the same thing again in Lunéville, right on the other side of France, way out east.

I’m now off to catch a TGV, one of France’s 30-year-old high-speed train network, which is thankfully air-conditioned.

Sharif, 9 April 2011

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