The language classes offered at my below average high school were either Spanish or French. The concept of an easy A had not occurred to me at the time, so I went ahead and matriculated for French 101. On that first day, I remember the classroom being filled with a beautiful voulez-vous, oh là là melody of sounds which I reveled in, dreamily taken to a corner café where I sat smoking long cigarettes looking oh so European chic. Almost immediately I took to wrecking the language with my hard, Caribbean Spanish accent. I couldn’t quite grasp the different vocal sounds French required, and the whole time I tried to emulate the soft, throaty phonetics all that came out was an awkward, guttural sound that sounded far from the sexy language my teacher was speaking.
I gave up my desire to learn a new language until university, when I found myself deciding between several idealistic majors i.e. anthropology, ethnic studies, humanities. Once I finally got all the general education classes out of the way, declaring a double major in Spanish and Italian was like having an academic orgasm. I could finally sit around reading old texts and learn a new language without regard to its usefulness whatsoever. Italian was a fluke since all the Portuguese 101 classes were full by the time I got my registration date, and French for some reason was long forgotten in my mind. From the start, Italian was an easier experience, a more palatable language for me, the words easier to decipher, the grammar more comprehensible, and when I finally understood my first Italian poem (Scattered Rhymes by Petrarch) I knew I had made the right decision. I’ll always remember my professor, a blonde Florentine woman, whose passion for sonnets and dead poets was contagious.
Every now and then, I would recall my brief rendezvous with French.
Many moons later we visited Paris as a family. The city turned out to be colder and grayer than I had imagined it, but to be fair, we visited in March when much of Europe still echoed harsh, winter skies. Contrary to everyone’s advice, I spoke English to every French person I met and surprisingly everyone I met was very friendly, a far cry from the French snobs they are reputed to be. It was an expensive trip though. The chocolate croissants were 4 euros ($7 under current exchange rates, and we devoured a whole basketful so you can imagine our surprise upon seeing that bill) but they were the best I ever had, so I suppose very much worth it.
After a nonstop walking frenzy, trying to sight see an entire city, in less than 6 hours with a toddler who refused to walk, I was looking forward to our evening flight on to the next European city. The plane was warm and there were very few passengers, enough for us to spread out. The girls fell asleep beside me, and I looked back to see my husband passed out, so I quickly gave in to the delirium respite from a wonderful but exhausting family adventure.
Despite the empty plane, two French lovers sat behind me, and for the rest of the flight they were deep in - what seemed to me - an exquisite sounding conversation. I should note that the boyfriend did all the talking while his girlfriend was either as captivated as I was, or completely bored out of her mind. Who knows? The language sounded as beautiful as it had 20 years prior in my French 101 high school class. The layers of low, nasal sounds and phonological harmony streamed into my inner consciousness and played with my dreams for the duration of the flight.
I was hoping that I would wake up fluent upon arrival. This had happened to a friend of mine, when she fell asleep on a road trip from San Francisco to Tahoe. The driver had just gone through a bad breakup and put the same song on repeat for 4 hours straight (Unbreak My Heart by Toni Braxton); when my girlfriend woke up, she was surprised to know the entire song by heart. I realize learning a new language using this method is a stretch, but at the very least I expected the Frenchman, whose voice was now embedded in my dreams of language, would turn out to be a darling supermodel Casanova, a pretty boy straight out of the glossy pages of French Vogue. Neither was the case. I hadn’t understood one word in that conversation and the French cover boy I had pictured was not really my type. When my sultry Italian husband came over to ask how I slept, it more than made up for that disappointment.
One day, I might attempt a new language, perhaps even try French again. Like Italian, it’s not very useful unless you have an interest in old classics and an equally old culture, but to me learning a new language is not about usefulness, it’s about opening my horizons to other trains of thoughts, other streams of consciousness, and other types of poetry.
|Paris in March is cold.|