Travelling in the rush hour is rarely pleasant. Standing, tightly packed, in an underground train is bad enough, but add to that the unique landscape and it all gets much worse. I am talking about close up views of ears, nostrils, pimples, pates and partings, plus the accompanying wafts of halitosis and last night’s alcohol.
But despite all this, there are those exceptional journeys that make the experience worthwhile, as was the case last week. On this occasion I gained new insights into aspects of French culture. I should point out that over the last seven years learning about French culture has become a key part of my life. When I took my O-levels in the 1950s, studying French meant struggling with grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation. Nowadays, there is an additional and obligatory fourth component – culture. Students taking French-as-a-foreign-language courses are expected to learn also about French history, art, laws and customs, aiming to put the French language into a wider context, indeed, enabling foreigners to understand a bit about how France and the French tick.
On the particular morning last week, I was standing next to one of the carriage doors. After the first stop, following the usual shuffling around that occurs as passengers find their place in the throng, this tallish man discovered that although at eye level there was some space, from the neck down it was as bustling as before. Down in the dark were two girls with their bulging satchels chatting intently in a world of their own. Indeed, they seemed oblivious to the wall of adults rising up around them.
They spoke in French. They were, as it turned out, 13-year olds on their way to the French Lycée where, in a few hours, they would be sitting an exam. During the discussion one of the girls kept referring to a dog-eared text book, and by reading its cover and its headings I realised that their test related to their obligatory course on ‘Education Civique’. And with much neck craning I could just make out that the subject for the day’s test was to be ‘Symbols, principles and values of the Republic’.
So, during my short journey from Baron’s Court to South Kensington l discovered a set of nationally-determined values that are important enough to be required learning for every French citizen, starting in his or her early teens. To be precise, schoolchildren are taught that the Republic has six key symbols: the Marseillaise, the French language, the ‘coq’, Marianne, the blue white and red tricolour, and the ‘Fête national ‘ on 14th July – four key principles: France is indivisible, democratic, secular and ‘social’ (roughly translated as sensitive to the concerns of others) – and it has three key values: liberty, equality and fraternity, which the girls said very quickly as though it was one word – libertéégalitéfraternité.
So why was the overheard revision session so helpful? First, it reminded me of the difference between the two sides of the Channel. In France, the French can refer to a Republic where there are agreed unifying ‘rules and values’. On this side of the channel we have nothing equivalent. There are actually no such unifying rules that could apply to Britain, Great Britain, or to the United Kingdom. In so many ways we (whatever the ‘we’ means) are a divided nation. And even if one were to limit oneself to England, having such declared rules is contrary to the way we work anyway.
Second, again taking England as our geo-political unit, I doubt if anyone here would bother to think up a series of prescribed national features to be learned and examined as such at school. Yes, it seems reasonable that school children are required to think about what it means to live here and to be, or feel, English, as indeed they are at least from my survey of three local youngsters, but pre-determining children’s views is simply not British. And while that is a great relief for me, it might well come as a shock to the French.
The insights gained about French culture from conversation overheard in a train have made me think about what we say and do over here. Making culture a component of learning a language seems such a very obvious advance – and it can make having to endure the horrors of rush-hour travel seem suddenly worthwhile!