« Qu’il est loin mon pays, qu’il est loin… »
“…and Claude Nougaro,” said my boss, brandishing the baguette. Her husband nodded. The three of us were at the dinner table, lingering over the cheese as usual. My employers had asked how I was managing, living in France. I had been there a couple of months, arriving with no more than schoolgirl French and was getting along quite well. I had made friends of many nationalities in Paris, shopped, dined and travelled in French and was fast learning the difference between the stiff formality of the language I had been taught in school and the laid-back colloquial version as spoken by Parisiens. I was even getting to grips with the local ‘argot’… those slang terms which, if they are in the dictionary at all, are used in an entirely different way from that suggested by their definition.
One thing I could not do, though, was grasp song lyrics. If I could read the words as I listened to music , I had no problem, but plucking the words from the music? I had no chance.
The French like music and my employers were passionate listeners. From jazz through pop to the classics, music was very much a part of our lives. I learned a huge amount from them about areas of music I had barely touched upon before and I had the use of their enormous and eclectic collection of vinyl and cassettes. But I struggled to understand anything with words. Music felt, quite suddenly, as though it was a world to which I had no key. I would see eyes filling with tears or sharing a glance sparkling with laughter at the lyrics of a song… and have no idea why. I knew this other world was there, just waiting for to be explored… but to ears unused to the nuances of its expression, understanding seemed as impossible to reach as the Otherworld.
I explained this to my employers and they came up with a list of singers I should explore. It started with artists whose diction was clear, but soon became a lesson in the music and poetry dear to the national heart… laying out before me yet another world, another layer of reality.
So I started listening, really paying attention, catching phrases here and there. Sometimes, although I could mimic the sounds, it would take a while for the words to separate out enough for me to recognise them… and sometimes they were words not yet in my vocabulary.
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