Deborah Telford plunges into polishing up her command of French with practical lessons in a Provence village

Finding the toilet and the train station are never problems when I visit France, thanks to my rusty schoolgirl French.

But a planned month's holiday there this year was a chance to ditch my embarrassing mix of pigeon and sign language and see if my French could finally start to fly.

Google French language courses in Provence. There are hundreds, but the small classes, wine-tasting tours and photos of beaming older people around my age on the Language in Provence website appealed.

Getting to my five-day intensive course in the village of St Saturnin-les-Apt, above the Luberon Valley in the Vaucluse area of Provence, involved a flight from Auckland via Dubai to Nice, a TGV train to Avignon then two buses.


This lively village, two hours' drive north of the Cote D'Azur and an hour south of Mt Ventoux, has a significant expatriate population but is not yet on tourist bus routes and is one of the few Provencal villages where parking is free.

I arrive on a blistering Saturday afternoon on the eve of Bastille Day.

It is the busiest weekend of the year and by Sunday the village's narrow Roman streets heave with visitors and merchants selling everything from nougat and olive oil to fur coats, vinyl and Virgin Mary statues.

They are celebrating July 14, "le quatorze juillet", with a bumper version of St Saturnin's famous Vide Grenier, which literally means "empty the attic".

The hotel where I am meant to stay the night is double-booked so I am billeted at the last minute with Madame Claudine Ducret, a talkative grandmother in her mid-60s who speaks about 10 words of English.

Claudine has nothing to do with Language in Provence, but is a natural teacher. We hit it off and I am soon wandering around her vegetable garden admiring tomatoes bigger than petanque balls, learning the French for wheelbarrow and tasting pristine water from her 2000-year-old Roman well.

The Sunday night before our course is the first of several group dinners with Monsieur Jullien, a former baker who accommodates me and two of the other seven language students in his historic mid-18th century house a short walk from the language school. Five nights' accommodation, simple daily breakfasts, four dinners with Mr Jullien and four lunches - including two delicious ones at the home of Englishwoman Susan Bento, who owns the language school - are included in the $1960 course cost.

Classes start at 9.30am and run for four to five hours until lunch, apart from a full day of lessons on day one.

In the afternoons you can pay for extra tuition or take tours, which vary depending on the time of year.


Mine included a drive to see the breathtaking lavender fields in higher Provence, a visit to the L'Occitane factory at Manosque, wine tasting in the Cotes du Rhone and Dentilles areas and a tour of an artisan nougat factory in St Didier plus opportunities to wander around gorgeous small towns like Forcalquier and Brantes.

You don't have to venture far in Vaucluse to find mouthwateringly fresh local produce including the raspberries, truffles, almonds, melons, figs and cherries the area is known for.

But am I here to brush up on my French or find good food? Both, to be honest.

On the first day we are split into groups according to our levels. Two students are having one-on-one lessons and the focused New York couple are into their second week of lessons, so no newcomers are going to hold them back.

That leaves me with the entertaining Irishwoman who starts her questions with "porque?" after spending six months in Spain, a delightful Swedish woman from Oxford in England who is struggling to stay awake in the 32C heat, and Polly - a charming, self-confessed control freak from London who has just taken a job in Avignon running a software company. She must improve her basic French fast so she can streamline her company and implement her master plan without ending up in a French employment court.

We start by taking turns to read out a feminist passage about a woman who wants to be a firefighter but is too petite. The phrase "keep quiet and look pretty" lodges in my brain. This could be handy. Possibly not with Polly.

The other vocabulary is more puzzling but nothing compared with the perplexed look on our tutor's face when she hears our accents and realises the challenge ahead of tailoring her teaching to our basic - but varied - knowledge of vocab and grammar.

Talk turns to tickets, timetables and trains. This is more like it. I'm warming up for shoe shopping, deciphering French menus and asking for a restaurant table that's not too close to the toilet. Somehow we get lost between the train station and the shoe shop and end up in the boardroom learning words for payouts, redundancies and takeovers. Not part of my master plan.

"How do you say, 'It's all about me'," jokes Polly.

During the week, we cover a range of topics, some useful, some barely relevant, given my still relatively basic level of French. I want to be challenged to speak more French, rather focusing on grammar.

But, after a few days of listening to our tutor speak only French, I am surprised at how quickly my comprehension improves. Instead of shutting down when someone speaks too quickly, my brain latches on to key words and deciphers meaning more quickly than it ever has done before.

By the end of the week, I concede that speaking fluent French is a life's work. However, the course has been a good kick-start and after three more weeks in France, I'm making a breakthrough and am determined to keep practising - maybe next time with Madame Claudine.

Provence Checklist
GETTING THERE: Emirates flies daily from Dubai with connections to its New Zealand services. The airline also flies to Paris and Lyon.

DETAILS: Language in Provence offers immersion, intensive, individual and tailor-made courses for adults in small groups from March to November.


Deborah Telford flew to Nice with assistance from Emirates.