First Days

I’m writing a series of posts on a trip I took to France 15 years ago. This is the second installment. See the introduction here and the first entry here.

My flight arrived in Paris the next morning, my third visit to Charles de Gaulle airport. The first two visits had brought me to tears, so excitement over my arrival was tinged with a touch of dread. I’d splurged on hiring a driver through the school for transportation to my host family’s flat. I exited the one-way doors into the waiting room where people clustered near the door, several of them holding signs. I spotted the sign with my name and the name of my school, held aloft by a large brown man wearing a dark suit and a broad smile.

I smiled back and approached him, then nerves got the best of me. My brain was muddied from lack of sleep and the sudden realization that now I had to use my French. And I couldn’t, in that moment, remember anything. Even the basics. So I pointed to the sign and then pointed to my chest, Tarzan-style minus the grunting.

He nodded and his grin broadened. He said something in French that I didn’t get, then took my two huge suitcases (packing light was a skill I had not yet developed) and led me to his car. I settled into the soft leather back seats and watched out the window, eagerly scanning for my first glimpse of Paris. Early morning grey skies hung low. The two-lane freeway heading south toward the city could be a freeway anywhere, yet was distinctly French with all the Peugots and Renaults, the squishy little vans (camions), the narrow long license plates with the large “F.” France.

Parlez-vous Français ?” The driver tilted his chin to peer at me through the rear-view mirror.

Oui. Un petit peu.”

D’où venez vous ?” He asked me. Where are you from? 

“Je viene de Californie.”

“California! Arnold Schwartzenegger!” He laughed a deep, rich laugh.

I couldn’t help but join him. We were all still laughing about our recently elected Terminator-turned-governor. Our Governator.

Et vous? D’où venez vous ?” I asked him. His language was sing-songy – not the typical French accent.

Vous parlez bien ! Avec un accent tres jolie !”

It was fun being the one with the pretty accent, and being able to understand what he was saying to me. I could feel myself blushing, though, because in that one sentence, I’d just spoken one of the easiest phrases, one of the first every French student learns, and had now nearly depleted my arsenal of French conversation. I knew a few hundred random vocabulary words and a handful of phrases, but no one ever responds to your textbook questions with the textbook answers, leaving the typical traveler stranded before a conversation can begin.

De Martinique.”

Huh? “?”

“The Caribbean. My family move here when I have three years.”

“Oh! You have a lovely accent.”

He laughed, again that rich, warm laughter. We passed over another small rolling hill and the industrial outskirts of Paris came into view.

“How long in Paris?” he asked me.

“Three months.”

“Three months! Your French will be completely current! Completely current!”

I smiled. “Couramment” was a French word for “fluent,” I assumed that was what he was getting at. It was an endearing mistake and an easy one to make. I wasn’t laughing at him – his English beat my French by far.

“I hope so,” I said. Fluent in French. What would that be like?

We entered the outskirts of the city. He pointed out Sacre Coeur perched on a hilltop and I caught a glimpse of the tip of the Tour Eiffel before he could point it out to me, jutting out of a maze of narrow streets and tall buildings. I sat up straighter in my seat. Paris unleashes a vitality in me. And here I was.

He exited le Périphérique, the freeway that forms a circle around Paris, and we dove into the city’s streets. It was still early on Saturday morning and the streets were nearly deserted. We sped through the seventeenth arrondissement, past brownstone buildings that hugged the narrow streets and drew me into an intimate welcoming embrace. I quickly lost all sense of direction but I knew we were heading in general toward the center of the city. I scanned the street signs – placards on the corners of the buildings. We moved from the seventeenth into the eighth arrondissement: getting closer. He turned onto Boulevard Malesherbes: my street. I leaned forward to better see the place I would be calling home for the next few months. I willed the car to keep going, wanting to be closer, closer, closer to the center, the heart of the city. The further we went, the closer we would be to the Paris I knew: The Latin Quarter, the Louvre. Keep going, keep going…. The numbers continued to count down and then the driver slowed and stopped. He pointed to one of many sets of wooden double doors embedded in the walls of the buildings.

I was early. Very early. I’d told my host family to expect me between ten and eleven, anticipating trouble at Charles de Gaulle. The thought that things could go smoothly there had never occurred to me. But here I was, and it wasn’t even 8:30 a.m.

“I’m really early,” I said. “I told my host family 10:00 or 11:00.”

The driver looked at the clock in his car. “Yes. You are early. A minute or a minute and a half.”

He put my suitcases on the curb and flashed a brilliant smile. “Welcome in Paris.”

I thanked him and he left. There was no way I was going to barge in on my host family that early; not the first impression I wanted to make. So I settled onto a bench near the building’s entrance with my backpack tucked under my arm and my suitcases pulled close to me. There I sat, exhausted, but unable to keep the smile from my face, for this wonderfully strange street was to be my home. Soon it would be familiar. A woman walked by with two tiny, white, curly-haired dogs on leashes. She wore a long wool jacket and a shimmering scarf around her neck. She gave me a curt nod and eyed my suitcases.

A few minutes later a man walked by, cigarette pressed between his lips. He, too, eyed my suitcases. I began to feel self-conscious and wondered if my host family could see me from one of the windows overhead. Children with backpacks ambled by, some accompanied by adults. Many French schools – lycées – don’t hold classes on Wednesdays so the children go to school for part of the day on Saturdays. I saw a jogger, which gave me hope that I might find a place in the city to run after all. I could see that I was in a quieter arrondissement populated with locals, families, and no tourists.

It began to drizzle. The people on the streets quickened their paces or pulled out umbrellas. My umbrella was buried somewhere in one of my bags, along with my jacket. Funny how the same weather back home would make me cold and irritable. But here – I was so excited that even the drizzle seemed novel. The naked trees lining the boulevard offered no protection, but I didn’t mind. While the Parisians scowled at the rain as though it was beating them down, for me it was a baptism, a new beginning.

A man opened the wide double doors from the inside then disappeared. A moment later, he squeezed out the narrow stone corridor in a Peugeot. I looked down the street and realized that all those double doors that I’d assumed led directly into the buildings were actually driveways that sloped down to the street. He drove away, leaving the doors propped open.

I grew groggy there on the bench, waiting for enough time to pass so that I could politely enter my new home. Activity began to pick up around me – shops were opening, more people were out on the streets. The drizzle stopped, but only for a moment, then it began again with a renewed vigor. I eyed the doors for a moment then made up my mind. I gathered my things and walked through them. Inside was a small courtyard where the clouded daylight shone in. One hundred and fifty years ago, when these buildings were constructed, this would have been where the carriages stood. Now it was filled with a half-dozen cars. I stood in the entrance, a modern glass door on either side of me. To my right the door seemed be to a small office. To my left, a wide curved staircase with maroon carpet hugged a small elevator. The old kind, open, constructed of metal bars. A panel near the door had names with buzzers. I found my family’s name, took a deep breath, checked my watch one last time, and pressed the bell.

Immediately I heard a buzz and opened the door. Above me on the landing – the first floor – a large double door opened, spilling out two young teenage boys and a woman in a bathrobe, her hair in mild disarray. The boys called something to me that I didn’t understand at all, but finally realized they were pointing at the elevator. Ascenseur. Feeling every bit the awkward American with a serious overpacking problem, I struggled to fit my two suitcases and myself into the elevator. One of the boys ran down the steps and helped me. I could feel my face turning red – I’m a redhead, so this happens with regularity – and a sheen of sweat dotted my forehead. I arrived on the first floor and the two boys each grabbed a suitcase for me, despite my protests. I was so embarrassed to have so much stuff with me, even though I was staying for months that crossed three seasons. I didn’t want anyone else to feel how heavy my bags were. The two of them – Thomas and Antoine* – crowded around me firing out questions, but when they realized I couldn’t understand them, they disappeared into the bowels of the house. I found out later that they went to school on Wednesdays, so they had their weekends free. My host mom, Juliette, greeted me with a small but kind smile and showed me to my room. I caught only a glimpse of the front rooms – a foyer the size of an oversized master bedroom back home, a dining room with a full formal table, and a living area the size of my apartment in San Diego, with couches and chairs all in Victorian style.

She led me down a long narrow hallway and into a small cozy room. It had a single bed on one side with two large cupboards overhead. I made a mental note to be careful to not whack my head on it, knowing full well that I was destined to whack my noggin with regularity. She pulled a desktop down from the wall, pointed out the wooden wardrobe, the TV on an arm high on the wall, and the phone, all the while talking in what might as well have been jibberish for all I was getting from it. She then led me further down the hall to point out the bathroom. Actually, the shower and sink room. The toilet (without a sink) was at the other end of the hall that was a good 100 feet in length. The kitchen opened just off the end of the hall, and she invited me to sit down and asked me if I’d like something to drink. That much, thankfully, I understood, and asked for some water. We talked for a bit, the easy stuff that I could easily answer: where are you from, how long have you been studying French, how long will you be staying. I could pick up words here and there, and an occasional phrase – enough to know when I was being asked a question, at least. She complimented my French, which made me feel at once proud and insecure. Proud that I’d impressed her, and insecure with the knowledge that soon the façade would crumble and she’d discover the truth: as I sat there nodding and smiling, I really didn’t understand much of anything. I gave her the gift I’d brought: A San Diego travel book, with ridiculously outdated photos: I hadn’t seen haircuts and swimsuits like those since the eighties. But it was one of the best I’d seen. She thanked me and later I found it in a stack in their living room along with similar books from all over the world. She introduced me to the student staying in one of the other bedrooms off the hall. Katyana, from what I could gather, came from Russia and was studying law at Sorbonne. She had a fresh, bright face and a tight smile, and spoke in rapid fire French to me. I faked it as best I could.

Charles, my host dad, arrived. He was large with a cherubic face and booming voice. He handed me the key – a heavy chunk of metal with real teeth – old school. He beckoned me to follow him to the front door, where he demonstrated how the key worked and spoke in the same rapid-fire French that Juliette had. I watched him and got from his demonstration (and certainly not from his words) that the door knob didn’t actually turn, and once the key rotated and clicked, the door was unlocked and I could just push it open. He handed me the key and looked at me expectantly, so I nodded and thanked him.

Non,” and he said something else while gesturing to the door. I realized then that he wanted me to try it. It seemed overkill, but I humored him and was embarrassed to find that I couldn’t get the door open. I rotated the key first one direction and tried the door, but it didn’t budge, so I went counterclockwise and still nothing. Luckily, he laughed heartily and said some French gibberish, re-demonstrated, then had me take another turn. I got the door open that time – I hadn’t turned the key far enough before.

So, I was set. I had a key, I had a room, I had a home. I settled in – unpacked my bags and washed up. Then, armed with a city map and a drawn map from Stéphane, I found my way to the metro to go visit his parents. When I got there, his mother was intent on feeding me, then his mom and dad took me to find a cell phone. Stéphane’s mom cooked me a delicious dinner and then they drove me back to my host family’s place, assuring me that I could call them if I had any problems, and if I did have a problem it wouldn’t be a problem, because they would help me. I felt immediately at ease being so welcomed by both my host family and my boyfriend’s parents.

That evening, the sun finally peeked out of the Parisian cloud cover. The window in my room looked out over the enclosed cobblestone parking area, and just beyond the building my window faced, I could see the tips of the gothic spires from the nearby church.

The next day, I explored Paris, found my school, didn’t find the crêpe I so desperately craved – it was Sunday and not much was open. I explored the book stalls along the Seine and got caught in the rain. I realized I was talking to myself in simple French phrases all day, narrating my every move: Où est la rue ? Je traverse le pont. Je prends le métro. Je trouve l’école. I encountered a few French people: A flirtatious man who saw me studying my metro map and asked me first in French and, upon realizing I couldn’t understand, in thickly-accented English, “You are looking for me in the metro?” then pointing at my legs and telling me I’m very nice. One friendly girl in the metro saw me studying my map and stopped to show me how to get to where I wanted to go. I was consistently amazed at how well everyone spoke English. I kept trying to speak in French, but they all responded in English, even as I stubbornly continued in my broken French accented by hand gestures.

I decided, that Sunday, that each day I needed to try something new. Visit a site, wander down a street I didn’t know, eat something weird. Something, anything, as long as it was new.

I got back home early that evening, exhausted and wanting nothing more than to crash in my little bed and snuggle under the covers with a book. But when I arrived, the double wooden doors were closed and locked. Shit. Or merde. Whichever way I looked at it, it wasn’t good. A panel to the left of the door, inside the archway, was obviously for entering a code. A code I didn’t have. Added to the urgency was the fact that Paris is distinctly short on public bathrooms, and I didn’t know how much longer I’d be able to wait on the street. I looked up and down, but no one was anywhere in sight. I paced back and forth in front of the door and thought briefly about calling out to the windows above the door, which belonged to my host family. I settled for pacing in a spot where they’d see me if they happened to look out the window. Lucky for me, a kid on a skateboard skidded to a stop and punched in a code. In half French, half English, and a lot of hand gestures, I tried to ask him what the code was, and if I could follow him in. His expression didn’t adjust to acknowledge me in one way or another, but he did let me follow him through the doors. My host family was gone, but Katyana was in her room studying. I grabbed my French-English dictionary and went to her. I looked up a few words and then asked her for the code. After a few tries and a lot of hand gestures, I finally asked her if she spoke English. She looked annoyed, but nodded.

“Charles didn’t give you the code?”

“No. I was locked out for a while just now.”

She raised her eyebrows, then wrote it down for me.

Merci beaucoup,” I said. I went to my room and crashed.

 

 

*Names of most people in this story have been changed.

Getting There

 

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Along the Seine

I’m writing a series of posts on a trip I took to France 15 years ago. This is the first installment.

Soon after I graduated from my physical therapy program and moved to San Diego, I met a group of French exchange students. I began to study French from a CD (which does not get you far, I quickly discovered) and managed to squeeze in a ten-day trip to visit them in France. There were four of them, all male, one of whom I had a brief, whirlwind romance with. I joked that my visit was my own French ElimiDate (does anyone remember that show?). Having four great-looking French guys show me around France was, well, no complaints here. The romance was short-lived, but in the way that life works, it rekindled my passion for France and the French language.

I signed up to take French night classes before a long stay in Paris was on my radar. The classes met in a small language school perched atop a row of shops and constructed of wooden planks. Trees and potted plants crowded the wooden patio between the small classrooms, giving the sense of being in an enormous tree house. Postcards from France and posters of basic phrases and verbs plastered the walls of our classroom, hiding the peeling, yellowed wall paper. Lumpy chairs circled a glass coffee table, the wine-colored shag carpet was thick and clumpy. It looked, and smelled, like a grandmother’s musty living room. But it became my twice weekly escape to the exotic.

Madame Loiseau hailed from Bretagne, France, and she guided us patiently through each lesson, gently correcting our errors, never wincing or criticizing our eardrum-grating accents. We learned the basics of conversational French while reading a play created for our class about Angelique, an American girl traveling to France to write a book on Paris (to which the douanier says, “another book about Paris? There are already enough books about Paris!”). She encounters a suave Frenchman named Jean who sweeps her off her feet, saying things like “How lucky I am to have met such a charming young lady,” and “tomorrow we will celebrate the ‘tu’ (meaning the decision to drop the formal ‘vous’ in favor of the more familiar ‘tu’) with champagne and a kiss.” Ooh la la.

But my favorite Jean quote was: “In France, we always say, ‘I work in order to live, but I don’t live in order to work.’”

We toured Paris with Jean and Angelique and we always ended the class by singing a French song. My favorite was Joe Dassin’s Aux Champs Elysees. That spirited little tune, with its trumpeted “ba-da-da-da-da” evoked cobblestone streets and sidewalk cafes, wine and cheese, leisure and beauty. Cliché though that song might be, it still put a grin on my face every time I belted it out with my class.

My initial plan involved about 3 months in a French Language Immersion Program followed by traveling around Europe for another 2-3 months. Springtime in Paris: it had a nice ring to it. Songs and movies have been made for this simple yet lovely phrase. I would head over the Atlantic two weeks before I turned thirty. Thirty. Wow. I don’t know what I thought I’d be doing when I turned thirty. I’d always assumed I’d be “on track” with life, have a career I cared about, perhaps own a home, perhaps be married, perhaps have children. I certainly didn’t think I’d still be searching for myself, still trying to figure things out. Thirty sounded too old to be doing that.

In retrospect, perhaps I’d already “found” myself. After all, I knew without a doubt that I would not be doing something ordinary for my thirtieth birthday. No coworkers singing happy birthday over a Von’s grocery store cake during lunch break. No party where I drunkenly stumbled into the start of my fourth decade. I wanted the Tour Eiffel framed by green blooming trees and blue skies. Cobblestone streets, creperies tucked beneath tall stone buildings, windows with overflowing flowerboxes. Planning the trip took some of the dread out of the big three-oh looming before me. Now, I actually looked forward to it. Paris. That’s where I would turn thirty. Rejecting the notion that it was time to settle down, be responsible, start adulting. No, thirty would be a reawakening for me. In the city I loved.

After researching I chose a program: Eurocentres, located in the heart of Paris: The Quartier Latin. I opted to live with a host family; mostly because it was the cheapest option. Plus, part of me was nervous about traveling alone. I’d done solo traveling and it had led to some of the most empowering and beautiful moments of my life, as well as some of the most frightening and disempowering. The idea of a home base where people would notice if I didn’t show up seemed… smart.

Because life likes to throw curve balls, while I was working 50-60 hour weeks, saving every bit I could, and fully committed to my plan, I met a guy. A French guy. And I fell madly in love. I knew it would be awful to leave him to take this trip I’d been planning. I also knew that I had to.

A few weeks before I left, I got my confirmation letter from the program. I studied it and then showed it to my boyfriend, Stéphane, wanting his confirmation that I’d understood the French correctly.

“I think they have a four-year-old,” I said. I’ve always loved kids, but I was in a stage of life where little kids were a whole lot less interesting than a club pumping out the best hip hop or a quiet Saturday morning in bed with a good book. I was trying hard to not be disappointed that I would be living with a four-year-old.

“Um, no.” Stéphane was looking over the letter.

“No kids?” I said.

“No, they have four kids.”

“Four kids? What? Are you serious?”

I immediately envisioned getting roped into being an au pair, unpaid. Shit.

The rest of the news was good: I would be in an apartment along Boulevard Malesherbes, in the 8th arrondissement, which meant nothing to me at the time but turned out to be a rather swanky quarter very centrally located, close to metro stops, Gare St. Lazare, and a gorgeous park (Parc Monceau).

Saying goodbye to Stéphane was excruciating. I hadn’t had many moments of second guessing the decision to take this trip, but second guesses bombarded me as he drove me to the airport. Why would I leave San Diego, and this amazing man who I was completely in love with? What kind of nut job would risk a relationship with the person she wanted to marry? We’d tiptoed around the subject once or twice, but in my mind, I knew. I had no doubt in my mind that I wanted to spend my life with him. So of course, by the time we got to the airport, I was sobbing. It’s testimony to the strength of our relationship and his love and understanding of me that he gently told me, “Of course you should go. You’re going to have a great time. We’re going to be okay.”

I remember looking back at him as I walked through security and hating that I was leaving him, considering running back, knowing I was open to the changes that would happen in my life over the next months and what that might mean for us while desperately hoping we would survive the separation. (Happy spoiler – we did).

Irresponsible had never been a word I’d used to describe myself. Well-organized, yes. A planner. Solid and reliable. I’d done my due diligence on this trip in terms of planning, saving, and preparing for it.

Then, I quit my job and left my home to embark on adventure with no plan for what would happen after. Only the awareness that I would, in all likelihood, be blowing through the entirety of my savings account. I felt a giddy pride in letting the spirit of adventure take over, in defining what my life would be outside of the conventions and expectations I had previously roped myself down with. In approaching my life with a “who knows what will happen next.”

It felt reckless and I loved that I was doing it.

Springtime in Paris

Fifteen years ago, this month, I quit my job and set off for Paris. On March 19, in fact.

It was everything I dreamed it would be. And more.

A lot led up to that trip. Like many who work in the health care field, I was Burnt. Out. I was angsting my way through a quarter(ish)-life crisis. I hated the idea of turning thirty and being in a situation that felt closer to hamster-on-a-wheel than to the bright future of a rewarding career and the balanced life that I’d envisioned in grad school.

In high school, I signed up for French as my second language but my mom refused to sign my electives form until I changed it. “You live in southern Arizona. You’ll never have any occasion in your life to use French. You need to learn Spanish.” So I did. And then I married a Frenchman. I like to remind her of this.

I’d long been fascinated with the French language and with France. Before I went to graduate school, I’d taken a month to backpack through Europe. France had been one of the best parts of my trip. Later, while living in San Diego, I met a bunch of French exchange students who I bonded with, and so I picked up a language CD and started trying to impress them. My French, then, was decidedly not impressive.

Mostly, I ached for adventure. Other than my month in Europe, I’d been living a nose-to-the-grindstone sort of life. My employer at the time considered a three-day weekend (where I clumped my work into four 10-hour days to get Friday off) a vacation that he had benevolently granted me, despite the hardship it entailed on his business. This was better than my first job where I was told a few weeks in that while they couldn’t authorize any vacation time as they were much too busy of a clinic, they would gladly consider allowing me to take an hour or two of my vacation time, as I earned it, if I needed to see a doctor or dentist.

It didn’t take long for me to realize something needed to change. I’d worked since my senior year of high school – all my summers and spring breaks were filled with jobs, and by the time I was a junior in college, I was working 20, sometimes as many as 30 hours a week while taking a full load of classes. Spring Break partying on the beach had never been on my calendar.

The French exchange students I met were having the time of their lives – traveling, learning a new language, experiencing a new culture, meeting friends from all over the world. Some were in college, some were older and learning English to help with their careers. I did some research and saw that I, too, could do something similar, in France. In Paris.

To get there, I threw myself into work: I spent more than a year working two jobs (plunging myself into even higher levels of burn out, exacerbating the very problem I was trying to escape), diligently saving, eating cheap, wearing worn-out clothes, and doing whatever I could to maximize my savings. I was determined to be doing something amazing for my upcoming thirtieth birthday.

The whole idea defied the puritan nature I’d been raised to have: work hard, and play, maybe, if you have time. When I told my parents my plan, they were… unimpressed. My Dad’s first comment: “I don’t understand why you’re doing this. How is this going to help your career?”  I answered, “It won’t. That’s not what this is about.” They were concerned, I get that. After all, I’d gone to grad school and had a good job that payed well and offered a promising career. I’d arrived. Right? My parents worried I was throwing that all away. As a physical therapist, I knew I wouldn’t struggle to find a job when I returned (I didn’t). I knew I’d be okay. I also knew that I wouldn’t be okay if I continued on as I was. I was exhausted. I needed more than the day to day grind. I needed an adventure. I needed to find some joie de vivre.

To complicate things, the dollar sank rapidly in value against the Euro during the first year after France adopted it, so my plan for a six month trip had to be pared down. I also had a new boyfriend – a French guy who by our third date I was pretty sure I was going to marry (he’s now my husband). Still, giving up this chance of a lifetime, this dream, wasn’t a consideration for me.

I quit my job. I sold most of my furniture and moved the rest of my stuff into storage (i.e. my sweet new boyfriend’s apartment). I left my car in the care of my parents. I consolidated my student loan bills and left a series of checks and payment stubs with my boyfriend who had kindly agreed to mail the checks I’d pre-written to pay all my bills while I was away. This was before online payments, Facebook, smartphones, and all sorts of other technology that makes this sort of stuff a breeze now. I didn’t even have a digital camera – I was still using film. And a dial-up modem. And a flip phone that had no chance of working in Europe.

Then; I did it. I went to Paris. I studied French. I traveled. And I had the time of my life.

I also kept a journal and wrote long emails home.

So, in honor of this 15th anniversary of that amazing time in Paris and beyond, I am doing a series on my trip, using excerpts from my journals and emails, as well as some photos – presuming the scans come out.

I’m looking forward to reliving this trip, and to sharing it with you!

 

 

 

Learning French With My Daughter

Despite research to the contrary, code-switching seems to be working for us.

While my daughter’s English is soaring, her French has been lagging. I mentioned in a previous post that I was making a commitment to speaking more French at home. My husband only has a few hours each day with our kids, and while he speaks to them in French, my daughter responds in English. He and I speak to each other mostly in English. So, I’ve started reading more French books, playing more French songs, and speaking more French to the kids and when we are all together. I’ve been practicing my pronunciation in the car with some CDs, and my daughter pipes in with me, her high-pitched toddler voice perfectly enunciating each vowel and rolling those “r”s. She is now speaking in full French sentences. She still veers toward English, but will repeat after me when I translate her words to French. My French has improved, too. Success!

Right now, French is fun for her. She likes to point out what language people are speaking, and she’s asked more than one of our friends if they speak French or English. She’s in a French preschool two days a week, so she’s hearing lots of French there, too. I worry what will happen if we no longer have the ability to send her to French immersion school. Will she hate French? Think of it as work, or something that makes her different and therefore something she rejects? I dream up all sorts of solutions: we’ll spend summers in France! I’ll create a curriculum and teach French in whatever preschool/elementary school she ends up in! We’ll find playgroups full of French speakers! I’m nothing if not determined. My favorite solution is undoubtedly summers in France. I’m thinking Provence….

Here’s an interesting new phenomenon: my daughter is well beyond babbling in English, but she’s been babbling nonsense words with French sounds. I wonder if this gibberish is because she’s trying out the French sounds she’s heard (my MD says they see this a lot in kids that are exposed to multiple languages) or if she’s trying to babble like her little brother, who’s getting a lot of attention for all the cool new sounds he’s making.

Her English is progressing well. She chatters away, using verb tenses mostly correctly and picking up vocabulary at an amazing rate. Those little preschooler minds are amazing things. She also makes mistakes but I can see the logic. My brother asked her the other day, as she ate a banana, if she was a monkey. She said, indignantly, “I amn’t!” instead of “I’m not.” The logic makes sense. After all, so many of our contractions are with the verb, not the subject.

Fascinating stuff, this language development. It makes me want to go back to school and study linguistics, as well as child development. Plus French history, French, English. Is there a job out there where I can just go to school all the time? That’s the job I want.

Merde

Often, when we learn a new language, the first words we learn are the swear words. This was true for me with Spanish – as a kid, when my dad worked on the family car, I learned all sorts of fantastic Spanish words. Perhaps he believed that if he swore in a different language, his impressionable little ones wouldn’t pick up on it.

Oh, but we did.

With French, though, it was different. I began studying French when I was 28 with the sweetest, most patient French professor ever. (Madame Loiseau – merci pour tout!) I didn’t give much thought to enriching my vocabulary in that direction; I needed to say “hello” and “goodbye” and “sorry about that, I’m a huge klutz.”

A year later, while living in Paris and attending a French immersion program, I spent mornings before school watching Inside the Actors’ Studio, broadcast in English with French subtitles. The host, James Lipton, always wrapped up the show by asking each actor he was interviewing the same five questions, one of which was, “What is your favorite curse word?”

Thus, I learned the good stuff.

The funny thing, though, is it all sounds like nonsense to me. A lot of these words have no direct translation, and since I don’t always know the connotation and I’m not used to hearing them used, I don’t have a good feel for how vulgar or tame they really are. Merde, for example, is somewhere on the scale between “crap” and “shit.” A kid will get in trouble for saying it, but an adult throwing it into normal conversation, even in a French class, will at most garner a few giggles. The word putain is listed in my French/English dictionary as “whore” or “goddam” or “bloody” if you’re British. But actually it’s France’s equivalent of the “f” word.

Enter my brother-in-law. I adore my brother-in-law. But sometimes, when he talks, I wonder if I really do speak French at all. He uses so many colloquialisms and slang words, plus he mumbles, so I can hardly follow what he’s saying. And – he’s got a potty mouth.

I learned some new words from him on a trip to France a few years ago. A woman walked off the train with his suitcase when he came from Lyon to Antibes to visit us one weekend.  Several hours later, she called him to let him know about the “mix-up.”  When he hung up his phone, he said, or rather yelled, “Grosse Conne!”  Literally, it translates to “huge idiot.”  No big deal, right?

Back in Paris a few weeks later, we were joking with my brother-in-law about the incident, and I mimicked the way he had yelled at his closed cell phone. I didn’t quite yell it, but I said it loud enough that my mother-in-law came running into the room in a state of panic and cried, “C’est Carol? Ce n’est pas possible!” (“Was that Carol?  It couldn’t be!”)  I suddenly felt like I was a misbehaving twelve-year-old. So I did what any twelve-year-old would do: I blamed it on someone else. “He taught it to me.” Turns out grosse conne is quite a bit more vulgar than “huge idiot.” Which is impossible to know unless you spend time around native speakers and embarrass yourself several times. I try to take the safe route – I want to know these words and phrases so I can tell if I’m being insulted, but I tend to not say them.

Except for merde. I like that one.

[Full Disclosure: This was originally published on my author website in 2008]

More French, Please!

Our daughter comes home from preschool singing adorable French songs like these:

It’s clear that she understands everything said to her in French. She’s also a great translator:

“Mommy, where’s my shirt?”

“Here’s your shirt, sweetie. How do you say ‘shirt’ in French?”

“It’s ‘chemise,’ sweetie.”

(Yes, she calls me sweetie.)

In her mind, there is a clear distinction between the two languages. She’ll pull a book from the shelf and tell me, “This book is French.” She’ll tell me her teacher speaks French but so and so in class speaks English.

It amazes me that at such a young age, 29 months, such a clear line can be drawn. Even my 9 month old son will pause and stare at me when I speak French. He knows something different is coming out of my mouth. Recent research shows that babies as young as 7 months can differentiate between languages. Fascinating.

Right now, though, our daughter tends to speak mainly in English or occasionally Franglais. She knows she’s doing it; she seems to pick and choose the words she likes or the words she finds easier to say. Like the other day when trying to give my husband a bite of her cereal: “Papa, open your bouche!” Or this morning, when I was failing miserably at corralling her to get her dressed for school: “Mommy, I want to play cache-cache!” (hide and seek).

Parents in other bilingual households have advised us that when she responds to my husband with English to tell her, in French, “I don’t understand. Tell me in French.” We’ve been hesitant to go this route; the last thing we want to do is shut her down when she’s trying to express herself and we certainly don’t want her to hate French. So right now, when she says something to my husband in English, he translates the phrase into French and has her repeat it back. She seems to think this is great fun.

We’ve also started speaking French more at home. My husband has been in the U.S. long enough that speaking French feels unnatural to him. We both have to put forth a lot of effort to have a conversation in French. But I need the practice, and it’s great for the kids. Lately, our daughter will even tell me, “Mommy, I want to speak French with you.” (Despite THIS)

Going to a French school helps, I have no doubt. We are in that window of opportunity, where her mind and her palate can take in our two languages and form the sounds without the flaws and struggles that I must deal with as a later in life language learner. It’s fun to see her French taking off, and fun for me to work on it with her. Our mission: more French speaking in our house, and trying to keep it fun so the kiddos (and I) don’t rebel against it.

Please Forgive Me, I’m an Anglophone

How is this for an ego crusher: as I was reading a poem by Verlaine in preparation for my French class, my daughter said, “Stop Mommy! You’re hurting my ears!” then clapped her hands over her ears to emphasize her point.

Ouch.

I’m telling myself that she wanted a quiet breakfast rather than my French being so abominable that even a two-year-old couldn’t take it. But still.

From my first words, usually “bonjour”, I have an accent. My husband assures me it’s a cute accent, but I’m self conscious about it. My French class is causing me to second guess everything I thought I knew about how French words are pronounced. I’ve decided that’s a good thing – I’m tearing out my bad habits and rebuilding with better fundamentals.

In France, the locals know I’m foreign, but often they don’t recognize that I’m American because my accent is less obvious. One of my most memorable experiences happened when I was studying in Paris. I traveled to Strasbourg one weekend to visit some friends and we went to a huge party where I was hit on repeatedly by French men of varying levels of charm. It was the accent that seemed to draw them to me and I started to feel pretty sexy and charming myself right up until this encounter. A French guy approached me and said something that I didn’t understand, so I said, “Pardon?” My accent immediately made it clear that I was not-from-around-here.

So he switched to English. “Where are you from?”

This was 2004, the height of America-hating, and not 10 minutes before I’d had to endure a diatribe about why Americans suck (from a guy who was simultaneously doing everything he could to get into my pants), so I wasn’t too eager to reveal my origins. Instead, I said, “Paris.”

“No, really, where are you from?”

“I’m from Paris.”

“You look Irish. Are you Irish?”

I shook my head.

“British?”

“No.”

“Scottish?”

“No.”

“Welsh?”

I laughed and shook my head.

He tried a few more English-speaking countries, then finally, exasperated, said, “Well then, where are you from?”

“I’m American.”

“An American girl?” He wrinkled his nose. “Ugh!”

And he walked away from me. Classic.

I don’t know that I’ll ever pass for a local. That ability with a language is a rare gift. I always laugh at movies and TV shows where some spy or official is pretending to be a native, talking in the native tongue, supposedly fooling everyone. It just so rarely happens; our Anglophone tendencies will always creep into our language. It’s a rare and gifted person who can speak a foreign tongue without an accent. My French teacher at SDSU is one of those people, which gives me hope. There’s a fuzzy line between improper pronunciation and simply having an accent. I’m working on it. If only so that my kids don’t make fun of me.

Former Posts about learning French in my family:

Progress in My French Education

Rue, Rit, Roue

French Customer Service

My Daughter Started Preschool

My Daughter Speaks French