(“I don’t speak French”) I say this more than anything else I say in French, except maybe Je suis desolee, je ne comprend pa (I’m sorry, I don’t understand). Madame Koepplinger, my AP French teacher and leader of the French club at my high school, would be disappointed indeed.
I began studying French in 10th grade. My first nine weeks I earned a D, the only only one of my life. I hated conjugating, I couldn’t remember the vocabulary, and I disliked doing poorly at something. But I got over it and grew to love it, especially with a new teacher in 11th grade. By my senior year I was in AP and the club, and placed out of the mandadory foreign language requirement at Queen’s College Charlotte my freshman year. I took what I guess was intermediate French anyway, and skidded through on what I remembered from high school.
Nearly ten years later I went to France. Finally. Brian and I landed in Paris at dark-thirty in Beauvais airport, way outside the city. I couldn’t muster up the nerve to ask the bus driver what time we left the airport even though I could form the words in my head. We got to the city and needed an ATM for francs for a taxi. I repeated to myself, over and over, clutching my little phrase book: Ou est un distribetuer de billets? I walked, fearful and awed, into my first Paris bar (the only thing open). I spotted what looked like a friendly woman. I opened my mouth. I froze. And, it pains me to admit this, but I opened my little book and bless my young, inexperienced self, I pointed at the phrase in French and smiled hopefully (or pathetically perhaps). She very kindly pointed me down the street (in English) to an ATM. I worked up the nerve to tell the taxi driver to gardez la monnaie (keep the change). He understood me and I had my first taste of the particular glee that comes from opening my mouth, uttering foreign words, and being understood.
In the years since, I’ve returned to France a number of times, and each time before the trip I make an attempt at “brushing up” on my French with varying degrees of dedication and success. Some of my methods have included reading le Monde and looking for a similar article in an English paper to see how much I garnered, instructional CDs and podcasts (my grown-up version of listening to cassette tapes as I slept like when I was a teenager), French radio stations, French films with subtitles, and a picture book that I should really return to the Somerset library at some point.
Each time I arrive in Paris I am slightly more confident than the time before, but still stumble and bumble my way with the vocabulary of a slow four-year-old. To the taxi driver I say: “I stop here. Get out. I walk now.” And that’s if I’m even half as good as I think I am. I have pretty good restaurant French. I can make a reservation, order and generally handle all business related to food. A particular triumph on my last trip was when they charged me more for wine than they should have. I managed without even a book to say what I think was, “The wine is 30 euros? I think it is 20 euros.” Sure enough, they took my bill and refigured it and explained the confusion.
But I’d like to actually carry on a conversation. I have missed so many conversations because I can’t do much after I’ve introduced myself and say “I have a small dog. His name is Truffle.” I talked to as many people as I could last time — being alone on a trip propels me to try to talk to more people, but after initial pleasantries I’m stuck.
And if Brian and I are ever seriously moving to France — and do we ever hope to — we seriously need to do more than make restaurant reservations. And if I’m limited, Brian is a complete beginner. Bonjour and merci make up his vocabulary.
So am I ever excited that our new friend Grace Pau, 12 years in Louisville by way of Brittany, wants to do lessons with Brian and me. She loves teaching French, and says her method is nothing like the painful rote mechanisms I used in high school (I still run through in my head when I try to conjugate an -er verb: e,es,e,ons,ez,ent before I speak.)
I hope from her I can learn — besides more vocabulary — an ease, and and a comfort in speaking French. I am almost unbearably self-conscious about it, and will sit and laboriously try to work out a full, correct sentence before I speak. Often the opportunity is passed before I say it, or I chicken out and do it in English. I’m really excited about this and can’t wait to get started. If I can’t be in France, at least I can bring a little of it into my life.