If you haven’t seen it, you’ve surely heard of it. Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 2001 rom-com was a world-wide hit, and is now one of the most successful French films ever made.
Amélie is a waitress in a café in the Montmartre district of Paris (a real café, as it happens, that now makes a tidy living out of serving expensive coffee to Amélie fans). Her solitary life is transformed when she discovers a talent for secretly changing people’s lives for the better. She sets about fixing her friends, neighbours and co-workers, matching up lovebirds, avenging the downtrodden, comforting the lonely, all without anyone realizing that Amélie is behind it. But can the incurably shy young woman find the courage to fix her own life? (Spoiler: yes.)
It’s quirky and surreal, an unrealistic fairy-tale of a story set in an unrealistic picture-postcard Paris. Some people complain that it is too whimsical, twee, and sentimental, but those people have withered hearts and do mean things to kittens for fun, so we can dismiss their opinion. Amélie is a lovely film. Put your cynicism aside for a couple of hours, and bask in it.
Here’s the trailer:
And here’s a scene from the film, in which Amélie decides to teach the bullying local greengrocer a lesson:
One of the key features of the modern languages degree is that the third year is usually spent abroad. At Oxford, we are exceptionally lucky in that we are able to spend this year however we want as long as our plans are approved by our tutors. With no work which counts towards our degree to complete, it’s therefore a year in which we are able to really focus on becoming fluent in our language(s) as well as exploring any particular interests we happen to have, whether these are academic, extra-curricular or related to career choices. I study both French and German, so this time last year I was faced with the enviable situation of having to split my fifteen months between two languages. Having long ago decided that I wanted to study at a German university, I was left with the task of slotting in France around the two four-month long semesters.
The first window I had was the summer vacation after my second year. Back in January a fellow Oxford linguist and one of my tutors mentioned on the same day that it was possible to undertake a stage (internship/work experience placement) at the Château de Montaigne, where the sixteenth Century Humanist Michel de Montaigne lived and composed the Essais, for which he is best known today. As a huge Montaigne fan I couldn’t believe it, so I sent a letter detailing my love to Montaigne to the address on the website. A few weeks later contracts were signed and I had a two month placement for the summer. The deal was very good: five days of work per week in exchange for free accommodation within the walls of the nineteenth century château itself, plus 70 euros a week and a gorgeous leather bound book.
Life at the château was incredibly varied and fulfilling, which was a pleasant surprise, given its location in a tiny village with absolutely no services and with the nearest larger village a 50 minute country walk away. I woke up naturally every morning at about 7am when the sun began to shine through the crack between the shutters of my room, which was in a converted wing of the château where Montaigne’s own horses most probably lived. I then had a few hours for reading, writing and breakfast before my working day began at ten. The job itself consisted of selling tickets and merchandise in the gift shop and hosting wine tastings, as well as undertaking a few duties in the huge wine warehouse, which was certainly very enlightening for someone who knew little about wine beforehand. But the most exciting thing was the guided tours. Twice a day I collected the heavy key and walked from the reception area through the woods to the château and the attached fourteenth century tower, the only part of the building which was not destroyed by a fire in the nineteenth century. The guided tour, an account of Montaigne’s life and work, is based in and around the tower and lasts about forty five minutes. At first, the idea of doing this in French was daunting, however once the facts were clear in my mind I found myself really enjoying this linguistic exercise, and actually only gave a handful of tours in English or German. The best part of the job was definitely meeting so many fellow Montaigne fans who were always happy to exchange ideas, as well as introducing several people to his life and work who had never encountered it before.
Our working day was over at six thirty. At this point, the three girls who worked permanently at the château would head home, leaving us four stagiaires (interns) to our own devices. We would cook together whilst watching the sun set over the vineyards. Despite being so isolated, there was always plenty to do, not least exploring some of the abandoned rooms of the chateau which no one seemed to have visited for hundreds of years. This isolation was also excellent for my language skills, for there was no chance of finding a big English-speaking group to socialise with, and between the seven of us we almost exclusively spoke French. It was a lovely environment because we were all girls aged between 20 and 24, and occasionally in the evenings we would have dinner parties or decamp to one of the many rustic soirées in the surrounding villages.
This immersion into French rural culture also forced me to develop a whole new set of practical skills, for example changing the gas, hand washing sheets and towels, and cleaning up petrol spills. On my days off I really wanted to see some of the picturesque Aquitaine region. Luckily, where there’s a will there’s a way, so with the aid of an ancient, gearless bicycle, I would leave the château when it was still dark, catch the once daily train out of the nearest village after a perilous bike ride through the vineyards and, by 8 or 9am, I would have reached my destination. I visited Bordeaux, Bergerac, Sarlat, and several of the surrounding villages, each of which had its own little quirks and was well worth the early start. The only train home was at 6pm, but at that point I was usually starting to miss the comforting air of the château anyway.
After two months I was sad to leave and still miss the opportunity to really engage with French language, literature and culture in a practical context on a daily basis. Maybe it seems odd that a twenty year old girl considers her best summer ever to be the one she spent living in an isolated château deep in the French countryside, but I’ll never forget the time I spent retracing Montaigne’s footsteps, and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this experience to others looking for a rewarding, short-term work placement in France on their year abroad.
One year ago today I set up this blog with colleagues and students of the French department at Oxford University as a way to promote French language and culture, and encourage people to consider studying for a degree in modern languages at university (preferably at our university). I was pleased in the early weeks as the hit count on the blog started to creep up into three, then four figures, as we started to get visitors from other European countries and beyond.
Now, twelve months later, we’ve seen our quarter-of-a-millionth hit, we welcome up to six thousand visits a day, and have visitors from over a hundred nations, including Kyrgyzstan, Nepal and Tuvalu. And the numbers are still growing every month.
So I wanted to take a moment to thank you for visiting and supporting this blog. We’re nothing without our readers and commenters, and I’m delighted that we’ve found an audience out there, interested in reading about French literature, French film, French grammar, even, and what it might be like to come to Oxford to study them.
Over the course of the year we’ve offered our reading recommendations for those of you who are interested in exploring French literature, in the original language or in translation, including all of these:
There’s lots more to come. If you find this a useful resource, do please tell people about us, and help word to spread. If there’s something you’d like to see more of, something new we could be doing, or something we could be doing better, then let us know through the comments. Thanks for reading, and I hope our regular Wednesday posts can carry on trying to keep you informed and entertained for a while yet.
An interesting little piece from Slate magazine for you this week. Kyle Murao, an American exchange student in Paris, writes about the French customs he found ‘wonderful but strange’ during his stay in the country. They make a nice portrait of France through American eyes. If you’re British, they’re also quite interesting as a way of measuring how far across the Atlantic you are culturally: are they as strange and wonderful to you as they are to someone from the US? Or are they perfectly normal things that we Europeans, British and French, like to do?
Over to Kyle:
Some French customs that I found wonderful but strange are:
Faire la bise. The double kiss on both cheeks. I miss this more than anything, because in the year that I spent in France, I kissed more beautiful women this way than I ever did before or since. You kiss everyone you meet, and if you kiss someone as if leaving but then still hang out at the party, it’s very rude. These days the double kiss is mostly done woman-to-woman or woman-to-man, but older generations also practice it man-to-man, with no sexual meaning at all.
Feeding children delicious adult food. None of this disgusting baby food or plain, tasteless crap. French parents don’t destroy their kids’ taste for good food before it’s developed by feeding them chicken fingers. They make them sit there and eat roquette salad and cassoulet de Toulouse.
Not drinking everything (milk, juice, water) ice cold. Rather, drinking it at room temperature. In fact, when you’re brought water at a café, you will sometimes get a puzzled look from the waiter if you ask for ice.
Helping complete strangers out of a sense of social solidarity. In America you avoid touching strangers for fear of legal liability if they get hurt while you’re helping them. In Paris, if you see a blind or disabled person at a corner, it’s considered completely normal to grab his arm and walk him across the street. If you’re out of spare change for a metro ticket and you don’t have a pass, it’s also very common for someone nearby to simply give you money to buy one. I had this happen several times, both as recipient and giver.
Bagging your own groceries while shopping. I had to get used to having someone else handle all my food at the store when I came back from France. (Perhaps this is why you never see grocery carts overflowing with unhealthy food.)
Going to a family-run pharmacy to buy medicine. You can’t buy drugs at big stores, and there’s no equivalent of Walgreens.
Being able to drive a car like an absolute maniac and having motorists not be considered second-class citizens versus jaywalkers (as they are here in the U.S.).
Talking about politics at the dinner table. Here in America, I at least was always taught that discussing politics at dinner was rude. But the French love frank, intellectual debates, and I can’t recall any dinner parties where politics wasn’t discussed.
Tearing off the awesome crusty end of a baguette and eating it while you walk home.