George Coulouris Memoirs

The Berlitz Experience

written by GC 3/3/89

I got back to the YMCA to find a wire waiting for me offering me a choice of jobs teaching English by the Berlitz method in either Trieste or Luzern. After a glance at the map, I booked my ticket for Luzern. I was mad about mountains and Luzern was full of them and just as full of tourists in the summer. It was October. The next three months were spent in an atmosphere so delightful, so charming, that nostalgia set in in me and has lasted for sixty years. I was twenty one when I went there. I had sent them a photograph and they told me that my aggressive eyes had frightened them a bit and made Monsieur Dufour, the rather rascally Gascon who ran the concession, doubtful about having me on the staff, if it could have been so described. Three young women, French Italian and German. I found them very attractive, I suspect simply because they were all young as I was. As I walked through the town from the station on the evening I arrived, I was enchanted by the clean streets, the crisp air and the bright, shop windows. It was like being in a doll's house and the Berlitz school was in the same vein. It was a typical middle class Swiss house with an overhanging roof, with a lot of baroque carving and I started off very well by apologising to Monsieur Dufour for my travel-stained appearance. He raved on for several days about how for the first time in his life he'd met an Englishman who was full of apologies. I stayed the night at a boarding house and the following morning I had the first of many delightful breakfasts prepared by the Italian teacher - wonderful rolls and inimitable Swiss cherry jam and lovely coffee. I forget who it was who told me where to go to get myself a room. I was astonished by the cleanliness and cheapness of the first bedroom I saw. Then I rushed out and bought myself a prize toy - a pocket alarm watch then, after a stroll through Luzern, I returned to the school and spent a few minutes looking at the monstrous carving in the rock opposite - the famous Lowendenkmal (the lion memorial) in honour of the stupidity of several hundred Swiss papal guards who all died fighting for the Pope. It was one of the best known monuments in the town and was solemnly boarded up to protect it from the frost and this was the signal that winter was on its way. What really made the place so attractive to me although I didn't realise it at the time was that it was empty. No tourists.

The guy whose place I was taking set about teaching me the Berlitz method which as far as I could see consisted of holding up pens, books, etc and bellowing out their names over and over again. Put it this way. I would pick up a book and yell out "the book!" followed by "what is this?" and answer myself "it is a book!" and then "Is this a pen?" to which the pupil was supposed to reply, "No, it is not a pen, it is a book." But what I got was usually, "No." I then gritted my teeth and said, "No, it is not a pen, it is a book! What is this?" If I was lucky, I would get, "It is a book!" The third time round I would get the full answer. This bellowing and questioning went on for eight hours a day. The man who was teaching me must have been shocked by my accent but he didn't let on to Monsieur Dufour so that I left many traces amongst the waiters of Luzern of a Lancashire accent.

There must have been lots of boring times during the next three months but I don't remember any. All my problems vanished in the carefree, happy atmosphere. All that remains is nostalgia not only for that particular spot but for the whole of Europe recovering from the biggest war in history. We were not intelligent enough to understand that the botchers had already got their filthy hands on throat of the future. All our talk was in French, so I had to learn to correct the lousy way I had been taught it to pass matric. two years before.

I looked forward to breakfast with Signorina Monigiotti's smiling face as she handed me the jar of jam I was addicted to as fervently as a young man today reaches out for a reefer. Among many of my long walks in the mountains, I started out one dawn with a pupil to reach the summit at sunrise. Most evenings, Signorina Monigiotti and I went with Monsieur Dufour and the rather ugly French teacher with whom I thought he was having an affair to the station to glance through the day's European newspapers hooked up on their sticks in the cafe where I learned to enjoy the best coffee I'd ever tasted. I'd had one taste of "continental life" in Greece. Fate seemed determined to show me how different it could be and I marvel still at how innocent we were. After all, what was the reality? Anticipation of the taste of jam, good-natured laughter at my efforts in spoken French, the thrill of sunrise after four hours steep climb, enjoyment of the walk to the station: how pleasurable our group found the little happenings of the day. The German teacher, a little blonde, Fraulein Krantz, spoke four languages perfectly. She didn't come with us. She usually had to get home to look after her father, who had had a stroke. He'd made things awkward for his family by insisting on giving away most of his money. I was very impressed by his noble appearance.

Every evening at seven o'clock we sat outside the school watching the plume of smoke we knew to be the express train half way up the mountain opposite on its way to Milan, which regularly brought forth a yell of "Eviva l'Italia" from our Director, followed by some snide remark about the Swiss such as the one about bathing.

Everything was in keeping. A dull, girl pupil was romanticised by her battle to get through the storm on the ferry boat crossing the lake.

Dufour seemed to like me and there were hints that when he got to Trieste he would send for me to help him in setting up the school there. I was not interested in the least but I said nothing. I didn't want to spoil things. I was having too pleasant a time, so pleasant that weeks went by so that I was tempted to dream of staying there indefinitely, but what about my wonderful plans to become a great singer, a second Chaliapin? I'd been showing off my beautiful baritone to the girls whenever I could and they seemed to like it especially "Je dormirai sous mon manteau regal" from Don Carlos, the Volga Boat Song and the Song of the Viking Guest.

A few hours away was the centre of opera of the whole continent, with all the best teachers. I decided to go to Milan. I was not clear about what came next. I'd begun to have faith in my luck. Ever since I'd done what I wanted to do and not what my father wanted, things had turned out very well, so I felt that Milan might turn out well, too. The great snag was that I had had no proper musical training and I was not sure that I was musical enough to become a professional. I had time to think things over. Meanwhile, Dufour had sold the Berlitz franchise to Monsieur Fonck, who turned out to be a character worthy of a French film. He was full of wise saws and modern instances: "Les dix regles de la bien seance..." of which I remember only, " Nul n'evitera ce qui est ecrit", and "Nul n'obtiendra ce qui n'est pas ecrit".

Monsieur Fonck had sacrificed his digestion colonising Indo-China and his bowels no longer worked properly. He had to be corked up for the greater glory of France.

I determined to go to Milan blithely assuring myself that something was bound to turn up. When I got there a furious letter came from Monsieur Dufour saying that the Berlitz School had never been so insulted and to make things worse insulted by "un goujat de vingt ans". I liked the sound of the phrase and was even more delighted when I found it meant "a twenty year old lout". I relished the title of "goujat".

I was right. Something did turn up - far from what I wanted - an offer of a job in the high-powered Berlitz School situated right in the centre of Milan opposite the famous cathedral. The school was about as far removed in spirit from my cosy little haven in Luzern. It was run by two high-powered Frenchmen, one of whom played rugby for France. I asked for two days' grace before deciding to take the job. What made it more horrible was that they insisted that each new teacher had to undergo training in the method. I moaned to myself, "not again!" and wandered round the city I already hated with tears in my eyes thinking of my third lost paradise, or am I losing count? I don't need to tell you that I was shortly to be heard yelling out, "Is this a book?" complete with Manchester accent.

The main change in my life was the parade of eccentric characters who made up the staff. I soon discovered that most Berlitz teachers were either wildly, insanely romantically ambitious or dead-end kids who were content to plug away with nothing to look forward to.

Each lesson lasted fifty-five minutes. The bell then rang and in a short time the minute common room became a little Tower of Babel. I never got to know any of them very well but I'm still amused by the memory of some of them. For example, the chief French teacher, I found out, had spent fifteen years in a monastery and had escaped wearing corsets. His wife amazed me by replying, "I don't know. I've never been there", when I asked her how long it took to get to Lake Como. It took half an hour. She'd been there for five years. Then there was a middle-aged, Cockney named Noakes, fresh from selling sewing machines in central Africa. I supposed he was some kind of intellectual because he palled up with a young consumptive Englishman who fancied himself as a lyric poet. There was a rather attractive blonde German, obviously out to become a great opera star. A pathetic, arthritis-ridden American woman who had been defrauded of all her money by a phoney Italian count and two rather charming, young Irish girls, made up the complement.

There was ferocious competition to get an occasional hour with a pupil who spoke enough English to get beyond repetitions of "This is a book. Is it a table? Am I the pupil? Are you the teacher?" and so on. It was forbidden to use anything but the language one was teaching on pain of dismissal.

One of the funny stories was of a French teacher parading around, yelling out "Voici le livre!" and then flinging open the door, exclaiming, "Voila le patron!" revealing him listening at the keyhole for accents of a deviant tongue. Italians were not very good at languages: they are too deeply immersed in their own culture. Also the Berlitz method in those days had a problem: how to put over abstract ideas, such as beauty and ugliness. This they did in those days by means of beautiful coloured pictures, one of Venus de Milo, the other of a monkey. I had a pupil, a waiter, who was anxious only to get to know the English for knife and fork to pacify angry tourists. After yelling out for ten minutes, tapping her picture, "Venus de Milo is beautiful! The monkey is ugly!" I began to get the right answer, but I didn't like the look in his eyes, so I looked round cautiously, risked being fired, and hissed, "Conosce che significa 'beautiful' in inglese?" "Certamente! Significa 'nuda'". Another embarrassing moment was when under the eye of the Director I was trying to teach a similar pupil to say, "Lincoln" which was used in the method to show that English was not like Italian. After listening for some minutes to my complete lack of success, the Director told me to have little common sense in applying the method too strictly to pupils who were sometimes not too literate in their own language.

I began to study Italian every spare minute I had, meanwhile racking my brains for a way to get started on my musical career. Luckily, I became friendly with a young Italian who worked for the Berlitz translation bureau at the school. He was completely bilingual and also a very fine pianist. I hadn't taken any of the dingy, bug-ridden bedsitters I'd been shown in my first few days in the city but I had no hesitation when I was shown a bed with clean, white linen in a clean, white-tiled cubicle with handbasin and constant hot water. The bed was a little high to climb into because it was chained to the taps of the bath underneath. I was delighted with the cleanliness I had come to expect from Luzern - and it was cheap enough to make up for no lazy lie-ins on Sunday mornings. It was in the municipal bath house, so I had to join the queue and pay if I wanted a bath.

Later on, I got an ordinary room, hired a piano and worked with my translator friend, Edgardo Canali, on some of my songs. When Canali told me he didn't think I was musical enough to become a professional singer, I was not too upset because I had come to realise that my sense of rhythm was faulty. To go further in music I would have had to find an exceptional teacher who was impressed enough with my voice to help me. Not knowing where to turn, I gave up my half-hearted attempt to go it alone.

The day before I left Milan I fell asleep on a grassy plot in the park of the Castello Sforzesco and woke up to find myself surrounded by Carabinieri - at least two of them - who told me ,"La lege non admette ignoranza" when I said I didn't know it was forbidden. They wanted to take me to the police station but the envelope from my mother was enough identification to get rid of them and, as I had never liked the city, I was more than ever glad to have my ticket for the train home the next day.

I stopped off for a couple of days in Luzern to see all my dear friends there, and several days later I was back down at the yard scrubbing rusty bully beef tins or taking samples of hat-lining hessians round the Jewish quarter, helping out in general. I wish I could remember that I got on better with my father but I don't.

Home page | Career | Writing | Photos | Obituaries | Links