Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Speaking French in France

A few years ago, when I decided that I should regain the ability to speak the French that I had learned in high school and college, people often asked me if I was doing this because I was going to France.  Every time, I would say, "Maybe I'll go to France someday, but re-learning French is not about that.  It's about getting back a skill I used to have, and it's about being a more well-rounded American."

(St. Emilion in the Dordogne wine region of France)

When Bill and I toured the Netherlands in 2004, I had been impressed that most Dutch people speak four or five different languages with ease. Since one of the languages is English, we had no trouble communicating, but, I thought, wouldn't it be great to be fluent in more than just a native tongue?

Those of you who read my two 2011 blog posts about re-learning French may remember that I took French I and II at the College of St. Rose.  After that, I spent two years attending a one-evening-a-month conversation group.  I missed some months, but every time I went, I came home and said to Bill, "This is so much fun!"

(Houses pile one on top of another on Mont St. Michel)

A group of six or more, we sat around a table and visited.  Any topic was fair game.  The participants ranged from people struggling with French to native speakers.  I fell somewhere in the middle.  At first I contributed to the conversation tentatively.  Then one December evening I was the only person who showed up besides the moderator.  Forced to communicate, I gained confidence, and, from then on, I spoke often at every meeting.

In March, Bill and I made our trip arrangements for a tour of France, planning to go for the last week of May and the first week of June.  Evening schedule conflicts forced me to miss my French conversation group in April and again in May.  Here I was, with a trip to France on the doorstep and rusty speaking skills!  Then, Terry, a friend who works with me in the cheese department at the Co-op, said, "I'm trying a different French group.  They meet at people's houses and chat.  They usually meet in Schenectady, but the one this week is in Albany."

(The Van Gogh cafe in Arles looks just like Van Gogh's painting of it)

I needed to go.  I drove to the home of MaryAnn, a woman who had been born and raised in France.  A few people were already there when I arrived.  Others streamed in, carrying wine, baguettes, cheese, and fruit.  I looked at Terry, and said, "I didn't know we should bring anything."  He said, "Don't worry about it.  I brought cheese.  It will be from both of us."

(Walking on the castle wall allowed me to take this picture at Carcassonne)

All around me, I could hear French conversations, as people went to the kitchen for a glass of wine and to the diningroom table for snacks.  I joined in one conversation after another.  When I got tired of the topic in one group, I moved elsewhere.  The people were welcoming and friendly.  They wondered how I had learned about the group, made sure I got on the email list for the next meeting, asked me if I had ever been to France, and were excited that I would be going soon.

(Chateau Chenenceau in the Loire Valley)

I couldn't eat or drink--speaking French on all different topics was enough for me to keep track of.  I took a couple of cubes of fruit to hold on a plate, just to make a good appearance, and felt transported into a French cocktail party, mingling, chatting, making new acquaintances.  After an hour and a half, I was exhausted.  I thanked MaryAnn and went to the door to leave.  In lovely French, she called out to me, "It has been my pleasure to have made your acquaintance."  How nice, I thought, and memorized the phrase.  I felt ready to take on France.

When we arrived at our hotel in Paris with a few hours on our own, I knew that I could ask in English where the nearby park, Bois de Boulogne, was, but I thought, hey, I might as well try my French now as later.  I asked the receptionist for directions and she brought out a map to show me.  My words sounded halting, but I got the answer I needed.  The next day, I spoke to a vintner where we had a tour of a wine cellar, asking him if it were okay to take pictures. Although my grammar was still awkward, he answered me nicely in French.

(A Medieval street in  Beaune)

From then on, I was off and running, and I had a blast!  I asked directions to a beach near the Riviera, spoke to vendors about their wares at a Farmer's Market, talked about the weather in a shop in Provence, ordered food in sidewalk take-away shops, read signs and translated them for Bill. Every day, I made opportunities to speak French.

(Virginia wading in the Mediterranean)

Once in a while I got bogged down, such as when I wanted to buy a tablecloth and had difficulty converting centimeters to inches.  I finally spoke to the vendor in English, but I bought placemats instead.  Twice people told me that I spoke very well.  I wondered about that.  Maybe I didn't speak all that well, but I knew they said this to encourage me and to let me know that they appreciated my efforts.

(Every city has a carousel on the square, Avignon)

One evening we went to a very old farm for dinner.  Everything had been made or grown on the property--the wine, red and rose, the chicken and vegetables. Our hosts even caught the fish in their stream.  Homemade bread and butter, and a salad with their own goat cheese began the dinner and a rhubarb crisp ended it.  Besides the wonderful fresh food, the farm had a continuously working mill from the year 1036.
At dinner, when the hostess came around, I told her that the food was delicious--my lead-in to my next French chat.  I asked her if the house, like the mill, was very old.  She took right off!  In a volley of words, she told me that the church was that age, and the surrounding farms, so, judging from that and the age of the huge stone fireplace, yes, the house was probably also from about 1036.  Whew! With intensity, I tried to grab every word.  I didn't catch them all, but I got the gist of what she was saying, and I nodded, murmuring impressed responses, finally ending by saying that her story was absolutely fascinating, which it was.

(The mill from 1036)

As the days passed, I also learned some technique and protocol. First, the French think Americans are very rude when they do not say "hello," before asking for something.  This made me realize how often we go up to a desk and say, generally in a nice tone of voice, "Do you know where...?" or "Can you help me find...."  I made a point to remember to say, "Bonjour" first.

One time, I was frustrated, trying to use my international phone card to call my parents.  I had been concerned about being far away from them for two weeks.  I walked to the desk and said, in French, "I'm having trouble using the phone."  I had forgotten to say "hello" before my question.  The receptionist answered me in English....

(Virginia and Bill have a sandwich at the beach, St. Jean de Luz)

And I learned how to end phrases like the French do, with a little tag on the ends of words, making a softer ending.  Better yet, I became comfortable using the breathy French "r."  It helped that our bus driver did not speak English and that his name was Eric.  Every day, we got on the bus, saying "Bonjour, Eric."  By the end of the trip, I could say the "r" in his name almost as well as our tour director did.

Eventually, we had to return to Charles de Gaulle airport.  That's it, I thought, I'm done speaking French in France.  It had been so much fun, and I probably would never do it again.  I felt sad about the end of the tour and the end of my language experience.  We stood in a long line for security.  Around me, people spoke in many tongues, but the dominant one I heard was American English.

(The high Pyrenees at Lourdes)

With my carry-on open for inspection, I waited for the security guard to ask me the usual questions.  I was shocked when he threw out a slew of them in French.  At first, I wondered if I should respond in English.  Surely, he knew I was American, and security processing was serious.  Should I play around with words now?  Then I thought, it's my last chance!  I said the appropriate "no" and "oui" to "Has anyone else had your bag besides you?  Do you have a laptop? or a Kindle?"  It wasn't a creative conversation, but we communicated satisfactorily...and he let me on the plane.

By the time we had been home over a month, I had not spoken a word of French.  I'm sure I've lost my "r", I thought, and those nice phrase-endings that I had learned felt long ago.  Neither of my French groups met in the summer. I began to think that these past few years of trying to re-learn French actually had been about going to France.  I had been kidding myself with all that esoteric nonsense about widening my American English perspective.

(Farmer's Market at Libourne)

Then an email arrived from a woman in the wine-and-cheese party group.  In French, she wrote, "We don't meet in the summer, but I'm around.  If anyone is free, come to my house Friday evening."  I went, and so did about 15 other people. This time, I brought a fruit plate--I knew the drill now.  As before, the others welcomed me and a few remembered me.

Most of the attendees were native speakers or teachers of French, yet no one was impatient with me, and I was not the only participant with mediocre skill.  Best of all, I remembered  the "r" and the phrase endings. 

(Golden-colored stone in Old Nice)

After two hours, I could hardly think anymore; I was so exhausted from trying to understand and to speak, but it had been a great evening. When I got home, I wrote down the new words that I had learned.  I would need to keep progressing if I were going to go to this group now and then.  And, as far as talking French in France, well, most of all it had been a lot of fun. And now, back home, maybe someday, I will have a soiree at my house!

(The Eiffel Tower is 125 years old this year, Paris)