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When I grow up I want to be French

By David Macdonald

Even though my family name is Macdonald (‘ac’ small ‘d’,) and I’m as proud of my Scots ancestry as the next member of any of my clan, this ambition is neither incongruent with my lineage nor as far fetched as it may seem. You can hardly imagine my delight when during my first visit to Paris, more specifically a foray to the Science Museum at La Vilette, I found myself wandering along one of the boulevards forming the ring around the greater city and it was signposted – wait for it – Boulevard MacDonald. It is of course named after the Napoleonic Marechal, Étienne Jacques Joseph Alexandre MacDonald. What’s a size difference in D’s between clan members? As the genealogist at Inverness library informed me once “all ye Donald clanfolk be kinfolk!”

Pere LachaiseAnd then of course there are those famous Parisian hamburger stores of this name. Not.  This love of France, and the city of Paris in particular, started in my High School years, thanks to a certain Miss Cook – my French mistress (in the teacher sense of that word). Born with a musical ear, I guess from the first time I heard the late Eartha Kitt purr her way through C’est Si Bon with that phony French accent that she did so well I was hooked on the sound of language if not the language itself. Edith Piaf did nothing to dissuade me that it was the most romantic of the Latin derived tongues, and so my choice of modern language studies (a compulsory high school subject) was not entirely the free elective choice for me it may have seemed to others. Furthermore, I was now thirteen, and being at a boys only institution vive la différence was starting to make sense, so you could add to the mix the fact that the then twenty-something Miss Cook was by a street mile the best looking teacher in a predominantly aging and male staff ensemble. My determination to parlez-vous became unshakable. (image: Pere Lachaise cemetery Paris, France.)

The next five years of my schooling entailed understanding that no noun animate or in could possibly be neuter gendered.  I tried to see every table (and différence) as a decidedly feminine object. Tricky, but that was an easy one (probably because I encountered la table on day one so it stuck). More importantly though, Mmlle Cook insisted on instilling in her young charges not only exemplary linguistic skills and l’accent d’un Suisse Romande, but also a deeper understanding of the country’s culture. And so we were exposed for an entire one hour lesson each week to Piaf or Brel (no Jane and Serge with Je t’Aime however), an unforgettable children's’ ditty called Savez-Vous Planter les Choux? (which became a surprise hit of the sixties), the humor of Loup cartoons, a taste of canned frogs legs or escargots, and the deep literature of Jean Cocteau in La Machine Infernale. But best of all were the travel films, the pick of which were about that magical city of lights.

Fast forward some thirty years and, apart from a couple of unfulfilled tourist plans I made to hit the rues de Paris, I had sadly come no closer to becoming a Frenchman than those schoolboy dreams had first allowed.

And then I was headhunted by a large international software company. “Unfortunately,” they informed me, “joining us will necessitate three weeks of intensive product training in Paris.” Unfortunately? I wouldn’t have cared less if their immature software offering could lead to the immediate downfall of Enron (who ultimately didn’t require much help in that area anyway) – I was already ready to sign on.

And so it was I first went to Paris. For three wonderful weeks I immersed myself in the city’s life. The intensive training turned out to be not so intensive, allowing me many free hours of daylight thanks in large measure to strict French working hours (which started at 09:00 am with a break for croissants au chocolat); plus the inclusion of three full weekends straddling my stay. The first of these September weekends fortuitously coincided with an event known as the jours de patrimoine on the Thursday, and although not legislated as such, by popular decree the European attendees decided it was to be a general holiday. That meant that those delegates from neighboring countries would return home until the following Monday, and so a four day non-working break fell into my lap. What luck!

My schoolboy fluency in French, long diminished through years of disuse, began to return. It certainly made the local townsfolk friendlier.

One of my last calls in Paris was to Père Lachaise cemetery, the final resting place of my distantly related Marechal (remember the genealogist’s words). Now, if I’m not going to be French in my lifetime, perhaps the city will allow a puff of my ashes to one day blow into the family crypt and I could become eternally French.

Dave Macdonald is an unrehabilitated Francophile, who lives in South Africa. His memoirs and images of this trip to Paris have been recorded on his blog at: