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  • sarastgeorge7

A sabbatical is not a holiday

And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don't believe in magic will never find it.' ― Roald Dahl

A sabbatical is not a holiday.

Don’t get me wrong, it has many parallels. It’s good for health and well-being and can help prevent burnout and the risk of overworking. It gives time for reflection and the chance to pursue new interests and skills. Research shows that fully detaching from work for an extended period can have the greatest impact. Hands up anyone who checks emails and still works while they are on holiday?

I came in search of a refreshed outlook and to soak up the French culture. I am learning that a successful sabbatical requires you to narrow your focus, know your abilities and limitations and embrace the intangible.

I have read that it can take around 600 hours of study and practice to reach the intermediate level of French. Many people suffer ‘language shock’ when they visit France and find that, despite months or even years of casual French study, they can barely order in a restaurant, much less carry on a conversation. That has happened to me. My goal to be speaking French like a native in just eight weeks has had to be reassessed. And I am Ok with that.

Me (pointing at the conveniently labelled panini in the window)

un panini fromage et jambon s’il vous plait

Boulanger: Quoi?

Me. Un panini (points vigorously) s’il vous plait

Boulanger: Quoi?

Me; Er… Ok... Une baguette*?

Boulanger: Quoi?

Me: au fromage et au jambon? Une baguette au fromage et au jambon?

Boulanger: Quoi?

We don’t have any cheese.

Me: In the window – it has cheese. A panini? A baguette will be fine.

Boulanger: Panini? (Shrugs and pulls a face.) No. We don’t have cheese.


My confidence was crushed; the rest of the transaction was completed in English – which the assistant spoke perfectly. I left with a very unsatisfactory ham baguette. The sort of baguette where wafer-thin slices of ham are barely visible within the jaw-breaking, crusty peaks.

You see, the thing about learning French through immersion is that it is exhausting. Every encounter sees me questioning whether I have the right words, whether I am saying them correctly, and whether they will just speak English and not give me a chance. I listen to the news and watch my favourite programme n’oubliez pas les paroles, every evening. I have even watched several documentaries in French– about Jaques Tati (I’m a huge fan), Basquiat, a French tour promoter looking for English look-a-like/sound-a-like acts to tour in France, and two nights ago – the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra no less.

I have learned quickly that pronunciation plays a big part. Funny that.

I was lucky to spend time with a good friend and her brother. Her brother, a farmer, has lived in France for 20 years and sells his sheep's milk products on stalls at several Paris markets. After an extensive cheese-tasting session at his stall and my bag now full of restaurant-clearing, pungent smells, we decamped to a local café for lunch. We followed up with a walk in the Jardin de Luxembourg, then aperitif(s) and a round of cards in a bar on Rue Montorgueil. His daughter is studying phonetics ( amongst many other language and literature subjects) at a Paris University, so was able to help with a couple of tricky words:

nouille (noodles nuj)

moelleux (soft, spongy mwa.lø as in moelleux au chocolat.) The best advice he gave me was to learn how to say my vowels properly and to speak slowly and clearly while I am learning. It’s quite a facial workout to get right. Oh, and to practice every day.

I shouldn't beat myself up. It's only been two weeks and I’m seeing progress each day. Maybe that is an important lesson to recognise.

So ‘See voo play’ has now become ‘sill voo pleh’, and things are going much better.

I should thank the nice lady in La Samaritaine who answered my questions slowly and clearly when I asked her to explain in French and the slightly grumpy French Boulanger (different bakery) who made me repeat back word for word what he said, taking me painfully through the whole conversation. I can’t get it wrong next time!

Today, after 305,164 steps (yes, I am keeping a spreadsheet), I decided I needed to me donner une pause and give my poor pieds and my head a break.

Right on cue, the sun popped out from behind the clouds, giving me the perfect excuse to find a quiet corner to read my book and soak up the day.

A short stroll around the corner is the Grande Mosquée de Paris. Un Jardin d'Eden au Cœur de Paris: I have been waiting for a sunny day to pay a visit. It exceeded all expectations, and at only 3 euros to go in, it more than made up for a very stressful visit to the Gare d’Orsay yesterday.

Opened in 1922, the Mosque is a haven of calm in the centre of Paris. 450 craftsmen and artists built it over four years. Along with the main building, one of the highlights of the visit is the gardens. As you walk in, the scent of jasmine wraps itself around you, releasing its heady aroma as the sun's rays slowly warm the enclosed garden. Glittering, jewelled pools of sunlight line the pathway as the sun glints and sparkles through the trees. The colours, patterns, and textures of the walls, floor, doors, and windows are an assault on the senses. It’s a really beautiful and peaceful place. Feeling more relaxed (can you tell?) I headed next door to the tea rooms and restaurant for a restorative lamb tagine and fresh lemon juice.

Two hours reading my book in the Jardin des Plantes rounded the day off perfectly. But the best bit of the day? No one would speak English to me - and it all went off without a hitch.

It seems giving yourself a break can make all the difference.

* In 2022 the humble baguette was awarded UNESCO recognition in the ‘artisanal know-how and culture’ category on its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

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