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March 2, 2015

Flirting with French

I don't have the strongest track record with contemporary memoirs. Every once in a while, I absolutely love them {My Life in Middlemarch, or The View from Downshire Hill} but then I'll read one, or two, or three {they shall remain nameless} that convinced me that it's too hard to like a memoir if it's too hard to warm up to its author.

Happily, I really like William Alexander. :)  He's a couple of years older than me, works in IT, is married to a doctor, has a daughter in college, lives somewhere along the Hudson River, and wants, very very much, to learn to speak French.  He writes about his horrible pronunciation, and his learning experiences, and about being able to make himself understood only to waiters used to tourists, and about theories on how we acquire language and the medical and scientific thinking that explains what he is experiencing first hand:  that it becomes overwhelmingly difficult, if not impossible, the older we get, to learn a second language. There's a side story as well about the serious heart problem he is beginning to suffer from.

Suppose I don't make it to Friday — I almost certainly will, or Chinitz would've found a way to get me into surgery sooner. But suppose I don't: Is a single-minded devotion to learning French how I would've wanted to spend the last year of my life? Two o'clock in the morning, while awaiting a lifesaving heart procedure, is a good time to start being honest with yourself, to parler a coeur ouvert. The truth is, not only have I failed to become fluent, or even conversant, in French, but I've failed spectacularly — more so than I ever though possible. You can't say I haven't tried. Over thirteen months, I've completed all five levels of Rosetta Stone, Fluenz French, a hundred podcasts of Coffee Break French, two Pimsleur audio courses, a fifty-two episode season of the 1987 PBS series French in Action, and a dual-language book, topped off by two weeks at one of the top language schools in France.
But this is about a serious and soul-baring as he gets. Of course, there are moments when he's clearly telling a story for effect (and this is his genre:  he has written before, about learning to bake bread and trying to grow vegetables, in what sounds like the same vein}. But mostly, he's funny, and self-deprecating, and happy with small victories. {I digress, but there's French in it:  my second favorite moment in The Great British Baking Show, second only to what Luis said at the very end,  was when Richard told the male judge that he was pain au lait for his signature bake, because he had fond memories of eating them during childhood holidays in France, even if they were a little simple and plain.}

French:  Beautiful, Maddening Tenacious. It won't let me win, but it won't let me go. I have no potatoes in my Hudson Valley kitchen, only the more poetic pommes de terre  — apples from the earth.  Instead of a slice of lime  — bah, ouais!  —   I top off Anne's cote voiture with citron vert — smiling to myself that the French call it simply a 'green lemon.' I text Katie often in easy French  — ca va? —  and she responds likewise, a game we can't stop playing as if we share a secret code.
      I may not have learned all the French  I wanted to, but what I did learn has enriched my life immeasurably. Yet perhaps the most important French lesson learned over the past year is this:  you can love a thing without possessing it. Even as French has eluded me, my ardor for the language has only grown.  I love, and will always love, French. Whether it loves me back, I have no control over.
      Je ne regrette rien.

1 comment:

Fleur Fisher said...

Another one to look for in the library catalogue. I always wish I'd realise when I was at school - and my brain was younger and more receptive - how wonderful it would be to understand other languages.I picked up bits of Italian when I worked in the restaurant industry, but they're pretty much all food and drink words or curses!

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