My love affair with France and the French language began when I was about twelve. This essay describes that moment when it all began, so many years ago…
They seem very ordinary. Those moments that change our lives forever. Really, it’s that just before them was ordinary. And then something happened and everything stopped or glowed or vibrated and stood out somehow from the moment before.
And looking back, it is all clear, how life changed in an instant.
Albert Camus said: “A person’s life purpose is nothing more than to rediscover, through the detours of art, or love, or passionate work, those one or two images, in the presence of which, his heart first opened.”
For me, it wasn’t an image. It was a sound. Or rather, sounds.
It was a hot September day, and my sister Sharon and her best friend Holly were huddled close together on Sharon’s bed discussing their first day of high school. I was still in the 8th grade, anxious to hear about their new world–of cute senior boys, (I learned the term ‘upper classmen’) upcoming football games and something called ‘pep rallies’.
Then there were all their new classes—biology, chemistry, and for Holly, French I. My sister, Sharon, had to take Latin. My mother insisted that it was the ‘mother of all languages’ and that we all had to take two years. Mass was still said in Latin, so that was something, too. Sharon read from her Latin I Book: ‘amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis amant’. ‘I love you’ in Latin. I was unmoved.
Then Holly began reading from her French I book, words and phrases like ‘chambre meuble’—furnished room. She tilted her head and made her lips into a kissing shape—‘oui, oui, chamber meuble’. She and Sharon giggled, seeing some meaning there that I missed, but I was transfixed.
The sounds—it sounded exciting, hypnotic and worldly to be able to make those French sounds. Holly kept saying words: ‘Je t’aime’. ‘I love you’. How romantic. I kept listening, my attention riveted on her words and on the sense of excitement I felt hearing them.
I’d heard French words before. My dad had spent four months in France during the Normandy Invasion of World War II. He loved to tell stories about his time there, about the warmth and gratitude of the French people at the arrival of the Americans. And about his efforts to speak French. Dad learned his French in a country high school in South Dakota, where the teacher, who had never heard French, was reading a lesson ahead to teach it. We’d giggle when Dad told how ‘s’il vous plait’ came out sounding like ‘silver plate’. I adored my dad, but his French sounded Midwestern, American, boring.
But this French sounded luscious, sensual, inviting.
That day, that moment, those sounds, may not be something that Sharon or Holly would even remember. But as I sat there with them, on the pink chenille bedspreads, in the bedroom of my childhood, something changed inside of me, woke up and paid attention. On that hot September afternoon, my life turned in a new direction and vistas opened up beyond the life I’d known.
I could learn those sounds and words and be a part of that place in the French I textbook, with the side walk cafes where starving artist types sipped strong coffee out of tiny cups.
I didn’t know what starving artists were and I had never tasted coffee, but I knew if I went to this place, where they said ‘chambre meuble’ like that, I could be happy.
I could also be far away from the small town in rural southern California where I’d lived my whole life. Far away from my mother’s coldness and sometimes cruelty. It was even a place where my father had already been. That was important too.
The next year, when I began high school, I suffered through the dreaded Latin I class—‘amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant’. I was unmoved.
So I begged, pleaded and cajoled my mother into letting me out after only one year.
I could take French, I argued, a language that people still speak. Didn’t that make more sense? In one of the rare moments that I can recall when my mother actually listened to me and seemed to care about what I wanted, I prevailed.
The next year, Sharon and I began French I together. I was a sophomore, she was a junior. It was a first for us to share a class, since we were in different grades. We were excited to sit next to each other, and chat before and after class.
But once the bell rang, I was riveted on the French. That first year, our teacher was an egotistical bore who seemed to enjoy hearing himself speak French (in a pompous voice) more than he cared whether we learned any. I studied hard anyway. He gave an easy A or B if you were a girl and smiled at him. I did that, but also earned my A+.
The second year, French II, Sharon and I moved into Mr. Maiwald’s class. He was a short German man with a pointed head and one eye that didn’t move. He had the reputation of being the hardest teacher in the school, who flunked students regularly. He was also the German teacher and had taught our brother German. Next to my dad, he was the smartest person I’d ever come across.
He made it very clear on the first day that he would give hard tests, be a tough grader, but that we would learn French. I was thrilled.
I became obsessed. I made flash cards by writing French vocabulary words onto 3×5” index cards and carried them with me wherever I went. I’d study them on the ½ hour ride to and from school on the school bus.
I’d have them on the ironing board so I could be learning new words when I ironed my starched white gym shirt and dark blue gym shorts each week or the blouses with the big ruffles down the front that were in style in the mid sixties.
I’d stay up late studying and figure out all the tiny nuances of how the verb endings had to agree when you conjugated them, all the different tenses, all the accents and irregular verbs.
I knew he’d ask those things on the exams. But it wasn’t that. I had to learn it all.
French and my dream of going to France became the center of my own private universe. I was safe from my real life as a teenager, from family problems, from boyfriend woes, from worrying if I was fat. When I said those sounds, I felt free and alive in a way I couldn’t in my normal life.
I got 100% on all the tests. It became a sort of silent battle between us, this short stocky German man with one funny eye and this tall, shy, high school junior. He wanted to see if he could make me stumble. He never did.
It was exhilarating for me to excel in his class. But each word I learned, each rule I mastered, each accent egu or accent grave that I correctly placed on a French word became a small victory.
It was another step closer to the day that I would fly across the Atlantic Ocean to France, sit at one of those sidewalk cafes and move my lips like a kiss to speak French.
© Diane Covington 2009