Brush with Provence
Nellie Crawford, left, enjoys Provence.

Ihave two passions. The first is painting; the second, which prevents me from becoming too obsessed with the first, is learning French.

Yet despite years of conversation classes, I found the gulf between "bonjour, monsieur - un vin rouge, s'il vous plait" and anything resembling a normal conversation immense.

So, in the hope of bridging this gap, I signed up for four weeks of French with Language in Provence, a language school where adult learners of French at any level immerse themselves in French culture and speak French (or at least attempt to) in a realistic environment.

The school is based in the village of St Saturnin les Apt in the Luberon, that mountainous region of Provence which has inspired artists and writers for centuries.

Peter Mayle's celebrated novel A Year in Provence immortalised the Luberon, with its slow pace of life, rugged limestone hills, brilliant light and medieval villages, for a generation of English speakers, many of whom upped sticks and settled there. But they were nowhere to be seen when I arrived in the hillside village early in September. Wandering through the narrow streets, passing lively bars and cafes, I felt I'd made the right choice.

An evening walk to the obligatory ruined chateau rewarded me with breathtaking views of a Cezanne countryside of lavender, olive trees, and vineyards, all bathed in soft September light.

For an anglophone, the pronunciation of "I have a sore neck" is dangerously similar to "I have a sore bottom." This was one of the things I discovered in my pronunciation class but I was concerned that both would be appropriate after 26 hours a week in a classroom. I needn't have worried. My two young teachers had a wealth of knowledge about the region and the insights they shared helped to lighten the lessons.

Students are grouped according to levels and my "class" was never more than three students.

My fellow students came from North America and Europe and the school also has corporate clients.

The school is a large house at the foot of the village overlooking a valley. The long, relaxed lunches on the terrace were the highlight of the day, especially for those suffering brain fatigue, and were just the right environment to put into practice the morning's lessons.

However, complete immersion is hard work and I soon learned not to sample the excellent rosé on offer if I wanted to speak intelligible French. A fellow student, a beginner, told me that for the first couple of days she thought her head would explode and, even for more confident speakers, immersion is not without its hazards. I'll never forget the horrified look I received when I asked a neighbour when he was going to eat his pet tortoise.

The school offers a range of accommodation options and I stayed with a French host, Monsieur Jullien, who reserves the top floors of his magnificent 18th century house for students. Each of the three comfortable bedrooms has its own bathroom and the large shared salon with kitchen and breathtaking views over the valley doubled as a makeshift studio for me when there were no other students.

M. Jullien is an excellent cook. Every few days baskets of fresh produce would appear - figs, melons, grapes, apricots, carrots, tomatoes, fresh herbs, olive oil from his brother's mill, lavender honey from his sister's farm and each arrival would be transformed into another Provencal dish.

Helpings were generous and polite ways of declining more food were useful, but I learnt that "no more thanks, I'm full" translates into French as "I'm plastered" or "I'm pregnant".

Language in Provence was founded a decade ago by Susan Bento, an Englishwoman and French resident with a language training background.

"I believe there's a wider cultural aspect to language learning," Ms Bento explained. "I think our immersion program offers the opportunity to see language working and to experiment in a relaxed environment. We try to make learning French a pleasure and achieve what a classroom can, without the anxiety."

Depending on the season, the school combines French with wine tours of the Cotes du Rhone, and excursions to lavender fields or nearby villages. These excursions are intimate affairs, accompanied by French speakers. Being in a car with three locals who all know the best way to the next vineyard is a language experience in itself.

With plans for a language and cooking course and extra classrooms in the pipeline, Ms Bento is set to take advantage of what she believes is increased interest in learning French.

I'm feeling tempted again.

The West Australian

Popular videos

Compare & Save

Our Picks

Follow Us

More from The West