French for Fools
“Vous etes sotte!” exclaimed my French professor. “Silly fool,” she had said.
I can no longer remember what I had said that caused her outburst, but I knew that underneath her seemingly insensitive ribbing , she had decided to take me under her wing. Later in the school year, she complimented me on an essay and said, “So, you’re a writer!” When school ended, she had secured me a job as an au paire at the seaside resort, Cabourg, in Normandy. That’s when my real French lessons began under the tutelage of a capricious three-year-old.
We combed the beaches for shells while we bantered in present tense. It would be much longer before I felt confident talking to adults. I had already been burnt a number of times in Paris and was still gun shy.
For example, during one of my first strolls along the Champs Elysees, where I hoped to find an elusive adjoining street, I succumbed to asking a local resident for directions. I thought I had pronounced the words so well.
“Excuse me, Sir, do you know where the street Francois 1ere is located?” I asked a well-groomed man of a certain age. To which he replied, “Yes, I do.” He smiled in a deceptively kind manner, and walked away.
For our final oral exam to qualify for the Sorbonne’s annual degree and diploma in the French language and civilization class for foreigners, a professor knocked me for loop.
“Why do you want to learn French – it’s a dying language?” After the year-long upward struggle to understand and respond in French, I thought I hadn’t heard correctly, but realized not only would I be expected to speak, understand and write, but also defend the language.
I no longer remember my answer, except for blathering to some extent about French being one of the two official languages at the United Nations along with English (but perhaps even that has changed in more recent times).
It had never occurred to me to think of French as a dying language, and for me, while living in France, it was the key to opening many doors, particularly the door to friendship, but also the beautiful nuances of communication, the subtle play on words, the wry and sometimes cut-to-the-core humor (even the guy on the Champs makes me laugh nowadays).
So, if you plan on spending any time in France, get thee to a language school and join the rest of us fools for life and laughter.
For more on life in France, check out Chris Card Fuller’s regularly updated Paris Blog.