Here’s Part 4 of my castle story, this bit from my unpublished manuscript IN THE VINES. (Read Part III here.)
I stood in the courtyard of the 15th-century chateau, with the ruins of a 10th-century fortress perched on top of a hill in front of me. My knees shook uncontrollably as I tried to keep a calm demeanor and steady voice. I was surrounded by a group of about fifty French tourists, all holding tickets and fanning themselves with brochures.
I’m going to faint, I thought, as my mouth opened and the words came out in a squeak: “Hello and welcome to the Chateau de Langeais. My name is Amy. I am usually the English tour guide here, but today they needed me to fill in with the French tours.” (Okay, making it sound like I had actually given a tour before was a lie, but just a little one.) “So I hope you will be patient with me as I massacre your language. And, more importantly, I hope you have a good sense of humor.”
Obviously they didn’t, since my pleasantries won grins from a couple of teenagers and a worried look from the rest. I heard rumblings of discontent, and a few people looked like they were debating whether they should skip the tour and visit the chateau on their own. I hurried ahead before any desertions could take place. “Please feel free to stop me for questions, or let me know if you don’t understand me. So, here we go…The fortress we see on the hill before us dates to the year 994…”
And for the next hour I spouted stories and dates and art and furniture terms. I had brought some note cards with me, in case I blanked, but was too nervous to look at them more than once or twice. At one point, I had to ask the group what the platform under one of the medieval beds was called in French. Some rolled their eyes, but others treated it like a game and shouted the word out, laughing.
Since I didn’t have the right vocabulary to ad lib, I had spent days memorizing the whole tour word-for-word. So when I got stuck, I wasn’t able to fake my way out of it. And there were several words I was using, dug out of the history books that Audrey had loaned me, that I had never even heard pronounced. But all in all I felt like I was doing pretty well. Until we got to the Wedding Hall.
I stood in front of a double portrait of Charles VIII and Anne of Brittany, telling my group the story of their marriage: the war between their lands, the wedding held for diplomatic reasons instead of love, children they produced and lost, and finally the death of Charles himself, just seven years after the couple had married.
As I explained the strange manner of his death, by a sharp blow to his head on a low door frame (possibly while riding a horse through a castle), I saw surprise flash across several faces, and then a low rumble of laughter spread through the group. Those who hadn’t been listening leaned over to get an explanation from their giggling neighbors and then exploded into laughter themselves. I looked at the group quizzically, but continued with the tour.
Just one room later I stood in front of an enormous hanging tapestry that had a surface woven with hundreds of tiny wildflowers. “This is a ‘mille-fleur’ (or ‘thousand-flower’) tapestry,” I meant to say, but instead the words, “mille-feuille” came out of my mouth. I had just told my group that the tapestry hanging before them represented a cream-filled pastry. General hilarity ensued. The laughter was harder and longer this time, the crowd having warmed up with my previous unintentional joke.
By the end of the tour, people were chuckling and slapping each other on the back, while repeating to each other the more entertaining of my mishaps. As the group dispersed, several people walked up to me to congratulate me on my effort. One lady confessed, “When you warned us you were going to massacre our language, I almost left the tour. But your French isn’t that bad. And no one that followed your tour will ever forget it – that’s for sure!”
I groaned as I opened the door to the office that I was sharing with Audrey, and collapsed into a chair. “How did it go?” she asked. I told her that I knew I had made a few mistakes, but I didn’t understand why my explanation of Charles’s death had made everyone burst into laughter.
I repeated the paragraph for her word-for-word. Her eyes opened in surprise as she raised her hand to her mouth and started giggling. “What?” I asked, confused. Audrey struggled to compose herself and said, “You told them that King Charles VIII died by slamming his head in the door.”
And now…CASTLE STORY PART V