I arrived in Villefranche-sur-Mer in October 2008. It is a coastal town on the French Riviera, near Monaco. I was to study French for six weeks at L’ Institut de Français. I was put into the class of les debutantes – literally, the beginners (everything sounds better in French). Every day, we had to chant the day and the date “Aujourdhui est..” This was helpful for my addled brain. My class was made up of people from all over the world. Patrice was our teacher. A man in his late forties who was one of those people that is made to be a teacher. We would stumble through the words, but when we got something right – Patrice would be full of praise. Sometimes we would get into a fluster over the words at which Patrice would say “Pas de panique, pas de panique” – don’t panic. These words were like a mantra for me- I was so full of anxiety and fear. I attached huge importance to them. And, to a large extent, they have formed a part of a sketchy philosophy that I have developed in my life. Pas de panique. There is very, very little that you control in this life and world. So, no need to panic. Be cool.
I developed a massive crush on one of the teachers- Julien. He was very good looking – he had a ponytail and he was, well, French. Every morning he had a class where anyone could go and watch the news in French and then talk about it. I dutifully went every morning, not understanding a single word he said, but ogling him, nevertheless. I was not the only one who thought he was magnifique. He had many fans. The school organised outings for us in the evenings and I remember one evening we all met in the village for dinner. Julien came and sat next to me. And I panicked. In a very haughty voice I asked him, “How old are you?”. He answered, “Thirty-five”. I reeled away from him, feeling like Vivien Leigh in the Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone. We did not speak again until I left the school when he gave me a hug and said “À bientôt, j’espere” (see you soon, I hope). I was in ecstasy.
My brain was slowly starting to work again. The classes were fun! We laughed at our mistakes. On the weekends I would catch a train to nearby towns and go exploring. I felt myself coming back into the world again- after years of being absent – I was astounded to discover that Nicolas Sarcozy was the French President, for example. I’d kind of missed that. On my birthday, the day I turned thirty-seven, I went to watch the news that Barack Obama had become President of the United States. Everyone was so happy that day. It felt like the world was going to change. Hope over fear. It felt like the mood in South Africa in 1994. But maybe it was just me – I was feeling full of hope for the first time in a long while.
One of my dear friends gave me the Dr Seuss poem “Oh the places you will go!” when I left South Africa. For those of you who don’t know it – I would recommend you read it now. It is a very wise poem. I have used it in my travels and in my life a lot. My time in Villefrance-sur-Mer was one of the happiest of my life. It felt like going back to Grade One. I was feeling footsy and brainy. It opened the world up to me in a way that I had never seen it before. There I was, on my own, learning a new language and making new friends. The world was bigger than South Africa. There were places to see!
There was another thing that Patrice used to say. Whenever we would argue with him because something didn’t make sense in the grammar or pronunciation, he would say, “Acceptez ça” – accept it. I would say this to myself, repeatedly. Accept this – you are here. You are divorced. Acceptez ça. Another thing I added to my life philosophy. Acceptance, real acceptance, brings joy and peace. Sometimes it seems impossible to do.