‘Vous parlez Français?’ says Jean-Yves after a hearty handshake.
‘Un peu,’ I say with the wide-eyed smile inculcated in me at American Convention-style training sessions – in Hackney.
‘Vous, Anglais?’ I say.
‘U-u-r-r …’ he says with raised shoulders and a palm-down swivel of the right hand.
‘The last skill you’ll need is speaking French,’ a colleague, Jetty Jones had assured me, having worked with the French-speaking Monaco team in the Olympic sailing a few weeks earlier. ‘They all want to practise their English.’
Except that is Jean-Yves, the Chef de Mission of the French Paralympic sailing team, who it seems doesn’t have much to practise. Jean-Yves cuts a grandfatherly figure and is utterly charming. And he is the man I shall be working for while the rest of the squad focuses on its real concern – sailing.
I’d spent three months revisiting the subject for which I got a ‘2’ at GCE, but which was thick with rust after half a century. Being offered a Games Maker role with the French delegation in Weymouth and Portland was a privilege, but could I cope with their mother tongue?
“Monsieur Dupont prend le petit déjeuner à sept heures, et part pour la gare où il achète un journal et une pomme.”
In Living French – Complete with CD borrowed from my local library, the lingo felt familiar despite the time lapse. Breakfast, newspaper, apple – this would be a cinch.
“Pierre était assis sur les rochers avec Madame Leblanc.” Rocks – that might be useful, what with being by the sea.
“Il a vu un homme dans un bateau de pêche.” Fishing, sailing – boats, just the same!
Armed with Jetty’s assurance and knowing I could make a real contribution when it came to men buying apples and women meeting friends in the park for coffee and cake while they watched pretty, green ducks, I was ready for action. Until, that is, Jean-Yves did the palm-down swivel. Bloomin’ French! The language I mean, not the people. The pressure was on.
Enter my French colleague Christine who’d lived in England for years and, like Jetty, had carried out the role of NPC (National Paralympics Committee) Assistant the month before – in her case with the French Olympic sailing team. To ensure Jean-Yves got the right support, we agreed she would be his main contact. For the next two weeks Christine translated at meetings, made transport arrangements and dealt with unexpected visits from French schoolchildren wanting to wish their heroes well, while I stood by like an apprentice waiting to pass the 15 mm spanner, ill-equipped to join in quick-fire conversation about sail measurement, registration of radios and the likely impact of a deep cyclone tracking through the Channel.
The pressure was off, but I needed to contribute more. On the second day, at coffee outside the team’s storage container, I slipped a banana onto the makeshift table, silently rehearsing what I’d practised to perfection in my B&B:
‘J’ai acheté cette banane dans l’épicerie à côté de la gare à sept heures trente ce matin.’
In spite of moving the banana from side to side and repeatedly glancing at Jean-Yves and the banana in turn, he didn’t take the bait. Nor did a personal approach bear fruit the following day. Jean-Yves seemed every bit a family man, so I casually left my wallet open when he and Christine were (I think) discussing the ballasting differentials of the 2.4 yacht being raced by Damien and the Sonar yacht of Bruno, Eric and Nicolas. As soon as Jean-Yves noticed the photo of my daughter Lily I was ready to say:
‘C’est ma fille Lily. Elle a seize ans. Elle vit dans un joli village où ils ont un boulanger, un boucher et un petit lac. Elle prend son petit déjeuner à huit heures avant d’aller à l’école, et prend toujours une pomme à manger plus tard.’
He never did. Despite freezing like rabbits in headlights when the other asked a question in his native language, Jean-Yves and I always managed a friendly smile, but our longest exchange was him pointing skywards and saying ‘vent’, which only led to a mutual chuckle and nod of the head, leaving me no wiser as to whether there was too much or too little wind for sailing.
After a few days I realised I was missing the point. And it was the Games Maker uniform that did it. From the first day I dressed up I’d felt proud to be one of seventy thousand volunteers chosen to represent Great Britain. The camaraderie and mutual respect between Games Makers reinforced this, as did drivers on the workforce shuttle buses who always offered a cheery: ‘Morning, how are you today?’
But I soon saw what the uniform also meant to those we were supporting. Each team had different needs. Singapore sought physical help preparing their boat, the Spanish wanted escorting to Weymouth to look around, the Danish liked domestic support at their house, and Jean-Yves looked for language and organising skills. But a common demand of athletes and officials across the twenty or so teams was simply for us to be there, in our conspicuous purple and scarlet, as a point of reference.
I forgot about contributing in the narrow way I’d expected, and helped however I could, displaying my uniform and wide-eyed smile with pride. Now I could detect the joy in a loud ‘Good morning!’ as the Japanese man and his wheelchair tore past down the slope like a seventeen year old in a Peugeot 106; I could feel the appreciation of a lone Argentinian whose boat trailer I helped push to the measuring sheds; and in the coffee queue I could share the frustration of a Brazilian sailor when zero wind meant no sailing.
In return I enjoyed the privilege of seeing dedicated athletes tend their boats, jumped at Jean-Yves’s invitation to follow races on a tracking screen in the athletes’ lounge, and basked in watching with the public from the ruins of Sandsfoot Castle. And it was utterly uplifting hearing Games Makers greeted in such glowing terms by athletes, crowds and the media.
Sailing finishes, with no medals for the French but a clear pride in taking part. The nine-man team lines up for the coach that will unite them with colleagues in London for the closing ceremony. I play down my joy at Helena winning gold for GB in the 2.4 class and Alexandra and Niki bronze in the Skud, but frankly my loyalties are divided after being attached to the French for so long.
As they board, there are air kisses and prolonged French farewells with Christine and a genuine handshake and ‘au revoir’ for me. Last in the queue is Jean-Yves who, outstanding manager that he is, courteously sees each colleague onto the coach first. He then takes me quietly to one side and with measured diction says:
‘This morning I got up at seven o’clock and walked to the beach. On the way I went to the shop with the little yellow door and bought a small bag of red apples. This one is for you. I shall eat two on the coach, and the rest I shall feed to the pretty, green ducks in London when I go to the park for coffee and cake. Goodbye Paul.’
‘Merci. Moi aussi, j’aime les pommes rouges,’ I say. ‘J’ai toujours deux kilos à la maison sur un plat bleu dans ma jolie cuisine. Au revoir Jean-Yves.’
Paul Costello © September 2012