Lately, a persistent pain in my shoulder has been waking me in the early hours and the only way to relieve it has been to get out of bed. The pain disappears, inexplicably, but at the cost of sleep deprivation. Later in the day I find myself inclined to catch a nap, like the chap in the same row as me at the cinema who dozed off during the film Final Portrait. Of course, his slumber may have been induced by the lugubrious pace of the plot (an account of Giacometti’s method and approach to painting a portrait from life) but I envied him his repose while making an effort myself to stay awake for the sake of my partner. For the record, the film has its merits, chief among them being a depiction of the artistic life in early sixties Paris and the romantic mix of bohemian behaviour and sophisticated manners for which it was renowned.
Last week I tackled my shoulder pain by experimenting with my pillow arrangement, putting an extra one in place. I have since had seven consecutive pain-free nights (though I cannot explain why the previous pillow setup of at least three years’ standing failed me so suddenly). Feeling refreshed, I ventured to the cinema once more. This time it was to see a 1962 French production, Le Doulos. Again, the setting was Paris in the early sixties – though this time in gritty, subtitled monochrome – and the cops-and-robbers plot was pacey and complex, all of which would have been enough to keep drowsiness at bay, even if I had slept badly.
I come from a generation of English schoolchildren obliged to learn French so, in theory, I can speak and understand it (to a limited degree). Lack of practice, however, means that any hopes I might have of following film dialogue without recourse to the subtitles is optimistic. Nevertheless, French remains my automatic default language when obliged to mouth a foreign phrase – no matter which country I happen to be in. It all goes back to colonial times, when you could get by with either English or French – preferably English, bearing in mind P.G. Wodehouse’s description “Into the face of the young man...there crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French”.
As it happens, it is the Italian language that is currently causing me angst. I am anticipating a trip to Sicily later this year and am keen to capitalise on the evening classes I took 25 years ago. I hope to revive my linguistic capability to a level that demonstrates my European credentials and distances me from the ghastly brigades of Brexiteers. It shouldn’t be too difficult: the past decades have seen a proliferation of all things Italian in the UK. There is now a presence on every high street of restaurants, pizza places, coffee shops and delis all sporting the colours and vocabulary of Italy. Fewer Brits than ever now confuse “espresso” with “expresso” and I even heard someone recently order a bottle of Verdicchio without hesitating over the awkward grouping of consonants.
So, I dug out an old phrasebook to brush up. I’m sure the essentials of the language are still in place since it was published but I have noticed that it contains phrases that were once considered essential but have since fallen into redundancy. Many of these are included in the section headed Post Office. Nowadays, people are far more likely to be asking for a wi-fi passcode than a stamp. I would do better, it seems, to ditch the phrase book and download a phone app which could translate almost anything – including sentences like “Could I have an extra pillow, please?”