Satchel. Packed lunch. Notepad. Pen, pencil, eraser. Butterflies in the tummy. Missed the bus. Driven into town by Dave, still in his slippers. The only thing I needed to complete the “back to school” flashback was a gym kit and a battered violin case. This was it, a new year resolution in action, I really was heading back to the classroom. But first I had to find it. Feeling confident I headed down corridors and through doors following signs to the Welsh Department. The Welsh Department, or rather a stern woman tapping furiously on her keyboard who appeared to be the sole member of the Welsh Department in residence, told me in no uncertain terms, but thankfully in English, that the Welsh class for adults I was looking for was in fact nothing to do with the Welsh Department, and no, she doesn’t know where my Welsh class is taking place, and yes, it does seem strange that a Department with “Welsh” in its name doesn’t have anything to do with my Welsh class. Feeling less confident I found myself alone in a stairwell with only 5 minutes to go before my first lesson was due to start.
Some time later, after a comedy Benny Hill style montage of high speed jogging up & down stairs and knocking on doors (though I hasten to add that I remained fully clothed throughout and as far as I know there was no dirty old man in hot pursuit), I was ensconced in an overheated classroom with my shiny new classmates, all of us gazing uncomprehendingly at smiley, round Mrs Pepperpot the tutor as she emits a series of noises that we assume is the Welsh language but could equally be her choking on her own tongue. It seems that teaching methods have changed somewhat in the fourteen years since I was last in a classroom mangling vowels and attempting to learn a new language. It’s all “ecoutez, repetez, ecoutez, repetez, ecoutez, ECOUTEZ, REPETEZ, REPETEZ,… aaarrggghhh ….. ad nauseum”. The class “rules” include trying not to ask questions about grammar and trying not to write during oral practice. They may as well ask me to try not to breathe! After four hours of chanting mispronounced vowel-less words it certainly felt as though my brain had been starved of oxygen.Ok, so strictly speaking that’s not true, yes the words were more than likely consistently mispronounced, and yes, my brain cells were gasping for breath, but no, the words weren’t really vowel-less, it just looked that way – you see the Welsh alphabet has seven vowels; the five usual suspects, plus the Frankie Howerd letters “w” (oo) and “y” (er). Words like “llyfr” and “eglwys” just look like they’ve been thrown together by a monkey with a Scrabble bag of consonants. Mind you, knowing that doesn’t necessarily help you figure out how to pronounce the words! “Book” and “church”, if you’re interested.
We’re encouraged to practice our newly discovered but tenuous grasp of the Welsh language outside of the classroom. Aside from throwing the odd “diolch” (thanks”) over my shoulder as I leave a shop, all but running out the door as I say it to avoid the risk of getting a full blown Welsh response that leaves me red-faced, I haven’t been brave enough to start any kind of conversation with the locals yet. I’m waiting for the class where we learn the Welsh for “lambing”, “beer”, “rugby” and “what the ****”. In the mean time I’m practicing on Teri, Stevie and Nessa, all of whom are born and bred in Wales. Teri puts her head on one side and responds with an enthusiastic tail wag, but that’s also how she responds to discipline, sticks and biscuits so I’m not getting my hopes up that it’s my perfect pronunciation that’s the cause of such encouragement. I suspect that the feline response of sceptical rolling of eyes, lick of the bum, a wailing cry and exit through cat flap is more representative of the quality of my performance. Dave already has a tendency to look at me blankly or glaze over when I speak, so I can’t risk slipping too much Welsh into my day to day speech for fear of him slipping into his own world never to return. The best way of judging how native Welsh speakers pronounce those crazy looking words is to watch subtitled episodes of the Welsh soap “Pobol Y Cwm” (People of the Valley) – rural folk (like Emmerdale), with townie pretensions to controversial storylines (like Eastenders), not altogether convincing sets (like Crossroads), hint of the amateur dramatics (like Doctors), feel of a daytime soap despite being pitched at a peak viewing time evening audience (like Hollyoaks). Last week it was revealed that the guy who’d framed the woman who’d just been released from prison was sleeping with the Detective who was investigating the case leading to the woman being released from prison because the girlfriend of the woman in prison saw the guy and the Detective having coffee together and grassed them up to the Detective’s senior officer. High drama indeed. Love, betrayal, anger, adultery – it happens in the valleys too!
But who needs “Pobol Y Cwm” when in class I can follow the soap opera that is the lives of Ffred and Sandra. Long gone are Peter and Jane and the fun they had with balls and Pat the dog. Ffred and Sandra are the Gold Blend couple of Welsh class, their “will they”, “won’t they” shenanigans providing weekly titillation through the medium of the dialogue box.
Ffred and Sandra met in week 1, by week 2 he was already asking her on a date, and by week 3, after said first date at the Black Lion on Saturday night, followed by a meal, he replies to Tom’s enquiry as to “what happened afterwards” with a cheeky “Oh, I couldn’t say”. Back in the day, it took months and months of French lessons just to find out whether Jean-Paul went fishing or swimming of a weekend, and now we have Ffred intimating to Tom that more than just a pie and a pint might have been on offer after a mere three weeks of getting to know Sandra. That’s progress for you!