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Plans: France 2010

Twice upon a time I lived in the south of France. In the geographic sense, at least.

For ten months in 1999 and 2000 I was a student in Toulouse, France's fourth-largest city and as far south as the bit commonly considered as "the south", though closer to the west of the country than the easterly lying other region. Having thoroughly enjoyed my immersion in that city (attributable to my new-found friends rather than the peripheral academic activity) I frequently visited for short holidays before moving there again for another ten-month spell in 2001 and 2002.

It was my time in Toulouse that pushed my interest and proficiency in languages. Although I'd always enjoyed French at school and was usually top of the class or thereabouts, I was woefully unprepared for living in France, attributable not only to the manner in which languages are taught in the UK and the inherent difficulty in learning languages anyway, but also my unfortunate personal trait of not planning things. I arrived in France having done a small refresher course at university but without having actually done any worthwhile work. I was out of my depth.

Before too long I had bumped into a couple of fellows in the street (their names were François and Séb) who were similar in appearance to me (long hair, boots, metal t-shirts) and who informed me - probably in English - that they were promoting a gig. I duly went to the appropriate bar and received my customary two beers (I asked for one, always received two and only found out years later that the hand signal we British use for one is two in France because they start counting from the thumb) and sat down on a table. Opposite was a person who introduced himself to me as Olivier, was referred to as Flunch by everybody else, and whom I would soon know as Cafard. He would become my constant companion during both my stays and would be the person inadvertently responsible for my eventual fluency in French, by virtue of the fact that he knew no English except the swear words (at which he was extraordinarily proficient).

His effect on my French was colossal, such that my speaking manner is very different to my English, replicating Cafard's deep voice and inarticulation, the sort that teenagers universally have but which Cafard hadn't grown out of, excepting when adopting a soft-spoken persona to charm the 20 cigarettes he smoked a day from passers-by. In all the time I spent with him I only once ever saw him with his own packet, and he was descended upon by half a dozen people in the pub demanding one in payback the second he was caught sneaking one out of his shirt pocket.

Cafard both widened and narrowed my vocabulary; widened in the sense that, as true friends do, we spoke about everything under the sun, compelling me to be able to speak about a range of everyday subjects and introducing me to hundreds of words that had never been on the school syllabus; narrowed in the sense that he was uneducated and spoke the French of the street, so that although my French is very genuinely and rapidly spoken, the words I know aren't necessarily the ones that are appropriate for use in certain surroudings and I would have no natural way of feeling that I should change register. It's the difference between knowing as an adult when it's safe to use a word like arseand when an alternative (bottom, posterior, bum) should be used. I wasn't going to learn that from Cafard and on a couple of occasions people politely took me to one side to alert me to the dangers of replicating him too closely.

My immersion in these new surroundings was sufficiently thorough that I had my first dream in French about three months after arriving (which seems remarkable now but didn't at the time) and reinforced my rapidly improving speaking ability by buying books to more formally learn the language ... and I found that I thoroughly enjoyed it and was more or less a natural at being able to absorb how the language work and apply it. An interest in learning languages was born and led to learning others, becoming something of a hobby for a good few years before employment, running a house and charitable work intervened to eat up the free hours which before would have been available for a bit of learning.

After my second departure from France in 2002 I didn't return until making a flying visit with Clare in 2007, during which we only saw a handful of people. Cafard wasn't one of them and I could get hold of him. We stayed with his ex-girlfriend, Alix, but she had lost contact with him. But then in 2010 he joined Facebook and we caught up with each other and so the die was cast - a catch-up after seven years was in order.

By pure coincidence a week-long Esperanto event for young people was set to take place in Toulouse that August, and so the decision was easy. We would take a two-week holiday to the area, using one week to travel around and another to mix the Esperanto activity in with seeing my old friends. In practice this never happened; because of an incident with people using its facilities the university at which the Esperanto event was going to be held and where the participants would reside closed its doors to all future bookings. The organisers had to scramble to host the event elsewhere, far outside the city and with tents as the accommodation, and so we instead booked two weeks in a hotel in Toulouse. We did much more travelling than we originally intended because the difficulty in reaching the Esperanto event meant that we instead opted to do other things but it was entirely worthwhile, with the exception of an unfortunate episode of trying to find the beach in Narbonne. We hope you'll enjoy reading up on our adventures in France (and Andorra!) in 2010.

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