Thursday, August 23, 2012

A Wide-Eyed Schoolgirl

I swear I was born in the wrong country. There must have been some mistake. But then again, if I’d been born in France, surely my passion for all things French wouldn’t be as ardent. The romantic euphony of the language is what I would have grown up with and the beautiful, fluid succession of words would simply be an everyday sound. Some other country’s language and culture would have consumed and pleased me, so perhaps -- just perhaps -- it’s fortuitous that my birthplace was Indiana and not Paris.

Passions are essential to a rewarding life. Whether it’s running, photography, travel, cats, fashion or the local baseball team, passions make the world a smaller place – a place one can deal with on a human scale. When you “care passionately about something, it whittles the world down to a more manageable size,” as Susan Orlean writes in The Orchid Thief. The notion is also related to the old maxim: if there are too many choices, you just never choose. Too many choices are too overwhelming so you simply walk away. Passions break this vast world of ours into wieldy little pieces of our own, like a fragrant garden of perennials in the backyard or a perfect patch of green lawn in the front – they are our own pieces of the world to love and nurture and over which we hold sway. Think about the Trekkies who follow their trail of delight around the country and sometimes the world, convention after convention. Or the intrepid mountaineers who have tackled every “fourteener” in the US. Much different passions but they give shape to those individuals’ worlds. My passion for French (and why I love French in particular is one of those essential mysteries I’ll never fully understand) has drawn us to travel to specific destinations, as has Joe’s for European history, and we’ve met interesting people and taught each other so much as we’ve pursued them.

And so my linguistic fervor landed us in Aix where I continued to follow my bliss with a month of conversation classes. It also gave Joe some much-appreciated time to start looking for a job and explore the cafe culture on his own. We chose the charming location for two reasons: first, it’s long been a university town infused with the energy of its young residents and second, it’s home to a wonderful French language school for foreigners: IS Aix-en-Provence.

A daily go-to-school routine helped us feel like resident members of the community, an attachment we hadn’t truly experienced during the rest of our trip.

I love being a student of French, no matter what my age, but on my first day at school I was predictably, as I’ve been on day one of any school year, nervous. I chose the least shabby clothes of those I’ve toted around for a year and laid them out the night before. Where was my freshly ironed plaid uniform, crisp white blouse, just-purchased navy knee socks with the tags still attached and my newly polished oxfords when I needed them? Joe packed my lunch, as if I were in grammar school (un sandwich jambon/fromage, un Perrier et une pêche), and I was ready to go. My giddy, much younger self comes out the minute I walk into a French classroom where I become, once again, a wide-eyed schoolgirl eagerly poised over her blank notebook, pencil in hand and her passion for the subject on her sleeve.

My class of ten included students from Australia, Austria, Finland, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden, none of us youngsters (we were all over 40) and all on an educational vacation in lovely Aix. When it came time to introduce myself, I stumbled a bit on the choice of tense. I was fine in terms of my French; the question was more fundamental. Should I use the present or the future tense of “to be?” Do I affirm that I am a French teacher or do I demur and say that I will be a French teacher soon? I made the right choice and opted for the former, asserting I am a French teacher – Je suis prof de français. It bolstered my confidence, gave me a little frisson of pride and sounded right to my novice teacher ears. For the next several weeks I once again experienced the euphoria that comes along with improving how I express myself in French and absorbing the nuances of this lyrical language. We were bombarded with new vocabulary, especially those words and expressions that are part of everyday parlance but are difficult to find in a dictionary. The more I know, the more I realize I have yet to learn; more than enough to keep me happily a French student for the rest of my life.

The French often turn long words into short ones by dropping the final syllables and in some cases, adding an “o.” Apéro, McDo and resto have long been staples of my French vocabulary (the truncated forms of apéritif, McDonald’s and restaurant), but thanks to my classes, I’ve now added other abbreviated words to my repertoire: les actus (the news), accro (hooked on), un ado (adolescent), bio (organic), un dico (dictionary), perso (personal), and my favorite, Sarko (Nicolas Sarkozy). Each week in class, we had to prepare a brief presentation about an item in les actus and I did one on social media. "Twitter" and "blogger," I’m happy to report, have now entered the daily lexicon as regular "er" verbs. We learned the quirky French term for walkie-talkie (talkie-walkie), that the expression vachement bien (amazingly good) that was used ubiquitously 30 years ago is much less in vogue nowadays and that it is très chic to say "super!" (su pehr -- accent on the su), especially if you’re a woman. The cafe was "super-bon;" your dress is "super-chic;" he looks "super." I imagine the French language police, the Académie Française, must be super-fâché (very angry) about all the new Franglais.

I had a variety of excellent profs during my month at IS Aix, but my favorite was Céline who was particularly warm and taught me so much. She was beautiful, funny and it was obvious she cared deeply about her students. I so wished I could be like Céline – une jolie française who spoke lovely French. Walking home from class that day it hit me once again, like it had so many times before: no matter how hard I try, no matter how much I practice, no matter how fiercely I study, I’ll never be French. I’ll never sound like Céline. I will always be on the outside looking in, my face and palms pressed against the glass. It plunged me momentarily into a micro-flash of depression. It was like being the most avid opera aficionado in the world who realizes she’ll never be able to do justice to her favorite aria <sigh>. But I managed to move on, content to have a passion that so enriches my life.

Much has changed in France over the past 35 years. There’s a new generation in a changed country with kind attitudes, a customer service orientation and lots of English being spoken. It's difficult for me to have an exchange in French sometimes because everyone lapses into English. The outlook in France is so unlike that of the days of yore. Everyone wants to speak English but I want to speak French (bolstered by Joe who loves to hear me speak the language) so we have these uneven, lopsided exchanges:

Good evening, Madame.

Bonsoir, Monsieur.

Would you like an apéritif?

Oui, je prends un kir, s’il vous plaît.

Very good, and you sir?

Un kir aussi, merci.

It’s a little disconcerting but they usually get the point and eventually give us what we want: French! We really do appreciate that they’re trying to be accommodating, are eager to practice their English skills and are proud of the level they’ve attained. If only Americans could exhibit the same passion for acquiring other languages. It’s one of my eternal wishes.

Pictures of our adventures:

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