Ted Jones - writer
Learning French - Italian Style
A little Japanese woman was taking a photograph of the crater. As I moved aside to get out of her picture, she disappeared, blown off her feet by the buffeting wind. What was I doing, in a pounding gale, clambering about on a bleak, black moonscape, 2000 metres up Mount Etna?

I was learning French. Oh yes, I knew how to ask for a baguette, order a meal, or even discuss with my wife (in English of course) the correct use of the subjunctive – but I couldn’t converse.

Language schools hadn’t helped much. On even the most intensive courses, students can’t wait for the pause-café, so they can chat in English. Then they go home and speak English. So we decided that what we needed was total immersion in French.

The answer, we decided, was a coach tour, with French guides, drivers, and fellow-travellers who were all French. After a week without speaking a word of English – except to each other - we would be bavarde-ing away like French Sunday cyclists. And the thought that we might get to meet some French people and see some fascinating places along the way, without having to drive vast distances, was a bonus. We chose Sicily: that’s what I was doing up Mount Etna.

Fortunately, the Japanese woman had been blown away from the crater’s edge and was lying, bewildered on a bed of ground pumice. As I picked her up she said ‘Thank you’. They were the first words of English – except for my wife’s – that I had heard for a week. ‘Dozo’, I said, showing off.

Etna is the highest volcano in Europe, but it does not fit the common image of a cone-shaped mountain, belching lava from its peak. The lava certainly flows: there have been regular and sometimes devastating eruptions for thousands of years. By night you can watch it - beautiful but menacing - from the comparative safety of your hotel veranda, as incandescent streams of boiling rock suppurate like boils from mountain crevices.

There are over 600 extinct graters on the mountain, and most of the island’s roads and buildings are built from the petrified lava of previous eruptions. You can see the remains of former homes that have been engulfed by Etna’s more recent flows, as if the mountain were claiming back its own.

But nature gets its own back, too: the minerals in the lava repay the land with abundance. High on the mountain, yellow broom, wild violets and mandrake thrive, while on the fertile lower slopes there are lush citrus groves whose lemons think they’re rugby balls, juicy tomatoes that will embellish the pasta sauce, and vines are harvested to make the velvety Sicilian wines. And, everywhere, the olives grow.

Etna may be is Sicily’s most famous landmark, but the island’s greatest treasure is its architectural heritage. Because of its size and geographical position, it has been called ‘the crossroads of the Mediterranean’. Little wonder, then, that it has had many invaders: from Greeks, Romans, Saracens, Normans, Spaniards and Austrians to the German and Allied troops of World War II.

These successive occupants have left their traces. Palermo’s cathedral has been a Greek temple, then a Roman one, then an Arab mosque. The little town of Syracusa, birthplace of Archimedes, is a living museum, with a Greek theatre dating from the third century BC and a vast Roman amphitheatre. In its cathedral, Roman and Norman walls link harmoniously with Doric columns from the original 600 BC Greek temple, the bell towers are Arabic, while the façade is a gem of Sicilian Baroque.

What with overnight ferries and daily changes of hotel, a French coach tour may not be the most relaxing way to improve your French: it’s a mixture of pre-history, pasta and pressure. Keeping up with the language can be tiring enough, but ‘French-speaking’ local guides who turn out to be native Sicilians, add a further challenge. But the rewards outlast the exhaustion.v It would be nice to be able to say that we now chat gaily with our local French commerçants. Well, not quite yet, but we did learn a little Italian and a lot about volcanoes; we met some lively people, gained two kilos - and had a wonderful time. But please – don’t tell anyone: it won’t work if too many Anglos find out.

ENDS - 729 words