Journey to French
I first stepped foot in France just after spending a junior year abroad in London. My friend and I flew from London to Paris for the first leg of a continental journey.
Speaking no French and on a tight budget, we managed to get around with a folding map, a Let’s Go guide book, and the obligatory “parlez-vous anglais?”
We scraped our pockets for francs to manage a diet of croissants, baguettes and street-side crêpes. Sitting down in a restaurant was out of the question – though what’s better than a fresh baguette and some cheese?
We stayed at a drab two star hotel in Belleville among the bustling Chinese and Algerian restaurants and cafes. With feet sore after a week of traipsing across Paris, we travelled by rail to Nice and the Côte d’Azur where it poured for four days straight. Beaches were out and movies were in.
I returned from Europe with souvenirs valuable (chunk of the Berlin Wall that had come down months before), and forgettable. But France, and Paris in particular, stayed with me, and I always knew that I would return. And I promised myself I’d do so speaking French.
Once back at my home school, I signed up for French even though I had fulfilled my language requirement with high school Spanish. I had always wanted to speak French, which I peg to seeing a movie when I was seven or eight with my mother.
As a French song played over the credits my mother asked, “Isn’t French a beautiful language?” more declaring than asking. Whatever I was hearing was indeed beautiful. It may not have been the first time I heard French, but it certainly was the first time I heard it in song. (Aside from perhaps ‘Frère Jacques’.)
But by the time I was able to take language in school, French was discontinued. Quelle horreur! I took Spanish, and no doubt having studied a Latin language helped lay a foundation for learning French.
I progressed quickly in those final two semesters and after graduation continued my French journey at the Alliance Française in New York. As my French improved, so did my interest with France and its culture, music and food. I crossed the Pont de Bercy, imagined Rue Sarasate, and roamed Saint-Germain-des-Prés through the songs of Piaf, Aznavour and Juliette Gréco.
Several years later I headed to Montreal for an intensive French course at McGill University and rented a room from a woman who, fortunately for me, spoke very little English. My ears eventually acclimated to her heavy, Montreal dialect and the “joual” common in parts of East Montreal. Non, maman French isn’t always beautiful. In class, on the streets and at home, I was immersed in French, forcing myself to think and express in French, an exhausting task familiar to every second language learner at that exciting stage when the language truly takes hold.
Some years ago, nearly 20 years after my first trip, I returned to Paris and rented an apartment in the 15th arrondissement, coincidently two blocks from Rue Sarasate. Paris was as beautiful as I remembered. The franc was now the euro, cafes offered Wi-Fi, and Belleville was now gentrified with boutiques and galleries. This time I ate splendidly – traditional cuisine, new cuisine, international cuisine. But still what’s better than a fresh baguette, cheese, and some wine en route to the Louvre?
And this time, I was speaking French and being asked if I was from Montreal. I not only adopted a language, but a dialect too!
How were you inspired to learn French?All images © Matthew Goldstein