Christina: Speaking French

April 30, 2010

My host mother Collette often invites her friends to dine with us at night. By now, they are men and women with whom I have shared many meals—warm and welcoming people who would sooner die than see my wine glass empty, who never fail to give me a blunt but well-meaning lecture, who claim to understand all there is to know about American culture without ever having seen the country. They are an affectionate, opinionated, and intimate group of friends who love to critique my speaking abilities with such a raw but poignant honesty and there is nothing I can do but like them despite it all.

A few weeks ago, in between hearty bites of Collette’s baked quiche and gulps of white wine, one of them began to tell a salacious and racy story about one of the friends who was absent that night. With all the chutzpah of a Hollywood gossip column, the story ended with a particularity sensational rumor about the woman. I couldn’t help but nearly choke on my quiche as I laughed aloud.

The room went quiet as every head in the room turned to look at me with wide eyes. The woman who had narrated the story set down her wine glass, her mouth gaping open. Collette cleared her throat and looked down at her plate. Finally, one of the men said with shocked joy, “Elle comprend! Elle comprend!

Wine glasses were refilled, a toast was made, and Collette’s friends clapped each other on the back, as if personally responsible for my spontaneous ability to speak French. It was like a classic Hellen Keller-at-the-water-fountain, Flowers for Algernon-post-surgery, Eliza Doolittle-at-midnight-with-Mr. Higgins, mute-girl-suddenly-speaks-moment.

Except it wasn’t.

What they didn’t know was that I could understand their conversations long before that day. What seemed like an epiphanic turning point had in reality been a slow and understated accumulation of knowledge. I never had that magical and profound moment that everyone talks about when learning a new language. I didn’t wake up one morning fluent in French, never had that picture-perfect and poetic moment of sudden discovery, never had a light bulb switch on in my head. Instead, it was if I had watched the sun rise in millions of subtle gradations until I could not remember what the sky had looked like in the early dawn hours.

These days, after I have a conversation in French, I am convinced that the language must have changed in the past three months. Surely the académie française passed a referendum calling for a simplification of the language and surreptitiously delivered the memo to every French citizen. It cannot possibly be that I have improved in French, because how could that sort of conversation ever have been difficult?

The day I arrived in France, I felt as if I had been lied to my entire life. The sounds that were coming out of the loudspeaker at Charles de Gaulle airport, the words I heard from the woman who sold me a ticket to Montpellier, the garbled noise on the train—this could not be the same French I had learned in the classroom. I’m still certain that Collette was speaking some language other than French on that day we met in January.

During the first two months, I carried my French / English dictionary everywhere. Even at a massive 1500 pages, I couldn’t bear the thought of venturing into the unknown without it. Although I jokingly referred to it as “mon meilleur ami” (my best friend), I also saw it as a symbol of everything I could not do. All I needed to know about French was contained within this one book, yet I could not access it. When I met with a French friend for drinks or coffee, the dictionary was always on the table, this heavy tome the constant reminder of our communication barrier.

The week before I left the US, I would pause during my daily routine and think, “this time next week I could be doing this in France.” And in those moments, France never seemed real. All my life, France was like a tiny world with tiny people that spoke this adorable but unnecessary language and did these sweet French things, but I always had a sinking suspicion that this place everyone spoke about didn’t actually exist.

And then I came here and saw Frenchmen wearing berets and striped shirts and women smoking long-stemmed cigarettes and eating baguettes. I went to Paris and saw men and women falling in love beneath the Eiffel Tower. I had five-course French meals cooked for me and endless glasses of white wine, people called me mademoiselle and gave me kisses on the cheek to say hello. And I slowly began to understand the language. It was a little like discovering that the fairy tale actually was true.

A part of me is sad that I’ll never get to feel that way again. I’ll never spend my days imagining what France is like. I’ll never fear something as simple as buying a train ticket or being in a foreign country alone. Never again will I feel homesick for a place I’ve never been too. Even if I were to learn another language, I don’t think I would feel so terrified yet so alive every minute of the day as I did when I was first learning French.

I miss those early days. Walking around in fear, being lost, hating France and feeling as if each time I spoke French I was confronting a personal demon: that was kind of fun, in a way.

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