A year ago I embarked on a reckless (and often humiliating) venture into the French language, and to mark the occasion I’m re-posting this piece I wrote for The Rabbit Room last summer about my decision to take the plunge.
But before I can do that, I find myself honor-bound in an equally-reckless pledge to my friend Katie. I gave her my word that I would share the following vignette in preamble, a testament to my progress with this elusive tongue. It’s hard to refuse a friend who is wiping the laughter-induced tears from her eyes–and I love her so much it’s hard to refuse her anything. But I will be perfectly honest: I don’t want to tell this story. It will give me away and it’s downright embarrassing. Mayhap my kind readers will get a good-natured laugh at my expense, however. After all, it never does to take oneself too seriously…
Last month, my husband and I were sitting in the lobby of a beautiful old hotel off the coast of Georgia. We were celebrating my birthday with a little apéritif before journeying over to a neighboring island for dinner. As has become our custom, we were chatting about our day in French. He knew all about my day, of course, as he’d spent nearly every moment of it in my company. But it’s a good way for me to practice my tenses and verbs, and always brings up vocabulary I’ve never encountered before (remember that). Perhaps I let my birthday go to my head; perhaps the lovely atmosphere induced a sense of overarching confidence. At any rate, I got a bit above myself, and started telling Philip about the nap I had taken that afternoon: such a sieste grande, in fact, that I had actually awakened to find I had, ahem, drooled a bit on my pillow.
I haven’t learned the French for ‘drool’ yet, being that it’s not a word I seem to have much need of on a daily basis. But in my optimism, I simply snatched a word I do know–l’eau–and cheerfully informed my mystified husband that I was, indeed, sleeping so well that I’d had the water coming from my mouth.
As soon as I had uttered this unfortunate statement, I realized to my horror that a woman was passing within earshot and that there was no doubt that she had heard me. This would not have troubled me in the least, excepting the fact that we had seen her around the hotel, and, what’s more–heard her. As soon as she had opened her mouth, Philip and I both knew she was French. Probably Parisian. How striking it can be to hear your native language being spoken in a foreign land, howsoever imperfectly, and our ears naturally prick up to the sound. Bless her heart–she probably wished to goodness that hers hadn’t.
I can only imagine what she was thinking as, after a brief, incredulous glance at me, she continued on, only to hear Philip’s heartfelt consolation:
“Désolé! Je regrette que tu as un problème avec l’eau qui vient de ta bouche quand tu dors!”
When Philip and I were in Paris a few years ago, he took me to the Annick Goutal shop on the Rue Bellechasse to buy me some perfume. With a characteristic twist of City-of-Light-magic, we stepped off the bustling little street and into what seemed for all the world like a nineteenth-century parfumerie. The walls were lined with open shelves painted buttery-cream and touched with gilt, all bearing the same simple offerings of iconic ivory boxes, and in the center of the tiny store stood a mahogany display table, ranged with ribbon-topped bottles of scent like debutantes lined up for a dance.
I was enchanted, and, despite the close quarters, completely overwhelmed. At that moment a clerk in a smart black dress appeared from behind a velvet curtain and proceeded to welcome us in her mellifluous tongue, and to ask how she could be of assistance. Philip answered her at once, with that utterly un-self-conscious ease of his that had been continually amazing me from the moment we’d touched down at Charles de Gaulle. He speaks French beautifully, though he’d be the first to deny it, and I loved watching him banter with the crêpe man at his cart on Saint-Germain and the vendors of roses in the Marché aux Fleurs. (There was the little incident at the Rive Gauche café wherein the woman waiting on us stoutly declared—in English, no less—that there was no such thing as a “croissant with chocolate inside of it”. She must have been having a bad day, for the customer next to us at the counter simply laid down her newspaper and remarked quite calmly, in French, “Of course he means a pain au chocolat.” Which, of course, he did. Without her intervention, I fear we might have gone breakfast-less that morning.)
I smiled rather lamely at the bright Frenchwoman as she showed us around the parfumerie, chattering away over the various top notes and essences. In Paris, as in other places we’ve traveled, it has been my code to wear black and keep my mouth shut, endeavoring to avoid the quintessential stereotype of the American abroad—which is itself a stereotype, I am well aware. Nevertheless, I maintained my credo with a modicum of dignity, sniffing the samples she provided, enjoying the melody of the language as she and my husband conversed over roses and jasmine and honeysuckle, picking up the bottles in turn to read their bewitching names. All was going well until the shopkeeper turned to me with a direct question, her eyes alight with friendly inquiry and her words falling out in a rill of beautiful incomprehensibility. I blushed and blurted that I didn’t speak French, and without batting an eye she repeated her question in English.
Something must have snapped in me at that moment, I remember it with such crystalline clarity. I didn’t want to be on the outside of such a magical language—I wanted to learn the spell that would put such beauty into my mouth, give me the savoir faire to move among the people of a world so different from my own. A latent desire sparked awake in that little gilt and crystal shop and I wanted it so bad I could taste it.
Philip picked up a bottle and grinned at the name.
“’Ce Soir ou Jamais’,” the shopkeeper laughed, then turned to me with arched eyebrows and a very Parisian tilt of her head, “Tonight—or never!”
We all laughed together at the melodrama implied and I dutifully wafted the sample under my nose. The breath of Turkish roses was intoxicatingly tempting, with its slightly grassy balance and hints of jasmine and pear—a bit more daring than anything I’d worn before. In the end, however, I went with the lovely La Violette, exquisitely uncomplicated in its old-fashioned reserve. I think Philip could have seen that one coming.
When I told him later of my resolution to learn French he was delighted. It was something we could share, another cord of communion to tangibly express the great mystery of making one life out of two. I have to confess, I am continually humbled by the enthusiastic sympathy with which he greets my desires and the practical ways he accommodates my ambitions. Marriage to him has been a flourishing in good, rich ground; a growing into dreams I didn’t even know I had.
Nevertheless, with all his encouragement, with the boon of a French-speaking husband upon which to try out my halting attempts, year after year slipped by without my acquiring much more confidence or vocabulary than a few highly useful phrases like, “Would you like some ice cream?” and “The chickens are in the henhouse.” I chalked up my remarkable failure to a computer program that didn’t work, an audio series that was missing the book, and general busyness (most mauvais of all). But the fact is, I was just too scared. I blushed when I said things to him, across our own kitchen table. What sounded like music in his mouth got stuck in the back of my throat. I psyched myself up, at his laughing pep talk, to order in French at our favorite boulangerie and then punted at the last minute, asking for “a couple of coffees and two croissants with chocolate inside of them”.
It seemed hopeless.
“You have to be an actor,” Philip told me again and again. “You have to just throw yourself out there—overdo it. Play the role of a French person.”
Of course, it’s what the best language teachers will tell you. (And most other teachers in their own way, I’d imagine, from writing to sky-diving.) Adventure presupposes risk; a step in the direction of a dream is often a deliberate revolt against a comparatively snug complacency. The desire accomplished may be sweet to the soul, but it often exacts a steep price from our ego.
The jolly Chesterton said it best: “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.”
If there’s anything God has been teaching me in the past year, it’s that flying in the face of fear is one of the best ways to shock my soul awake, like a plunge into cold water after a wild flight on a rope swing. Impracticability forces me to rely on Him in practical ways. To be sure, the gremlins I’ve endeavored to stare down might look more like Gizmo to stouter souls than mine. But God knows my weakness, and I believe He knows just where to kindle my heart with desire to flame light into those dark places of insecurity and self-reliance. “Delight yourself in the Lord,” the Psalmist urges, “and He will give you the desires of your heart.” God often grants desire, astonishingly and miraculously. But perhaps it’s more wondrous still that He gives it, employing even the lesser yearnings of our nature to keep us alive to that sehnsucht we’re all so blessedly cursed with.
In the light of this charge towards a more holy recklessness, my husband threw down a dare a few weeks ago. He had listened patiently to the latest installment in the Lanier-wants-to-learn-French saga, had assured me for the eleventy-first time that I could do it. Then he looked me straight in the eye.
“I’ll give you one week to find a tutor.”
A tutor? A thousand excuses rushed to my lips: too expensive, too time-consuming. Too terrifying. But instead I took the hand he offered and shook it solemnly.
In the end, God outdid my expectations by providing a tutor I would not have initially approached. I would have been way too (idiotically) intimidated, though I’ve known him most of my life. An erstwhile missionary to France and an extraordinarily gifted linguist, his French is so perfect even the French admire it. He’s the kind of person I would have been happy to practice my conversational skills on—after about twenty years of study. And instead, not two weeks after my challenge, I was sitting with him in the courtyard of a coffee shop in town, telling him I preferred thé vert over café noir and whether I was going to the supermarket en voiture or à pied. I think God thought it was hilarious.
“For an hour and a half, I’m going to speak pretty much nothing but French to you, Lanier,” he told me. “And you’re going to speak French to me.”
It seemed so preposterous—and conspicuous. I have a horror of looking stupid and my self-conscious sensibilities quailed at the thought of being overheard in my incompetence by the other patrons. I felt like everyone would be staring at me—bemusedly. (As if they were all writers, or something. Writers stare at people. And they write things in notebooks, which can be very disconcerting to highly-sensitive individuals.)
There were evidently no writers among the clientele that afternoon, however, for no one paid us the slightest attention. Several people were smoking and a couple of dogs barked at each other across the courtyard. A delivery truck pulled up in the cobbled alley we were facing with a snort of diesel exhaust.
“This feels like Paris!” my friend laughed, settling back in his chair with a smile of satisfaction. “Vas-tu à l’église ce soir?”
Ce soir—that I knew, and I think I replied that, yes, I was going to church that night. But “ce soir” inevitably summons the words “ou jamais” on its heels, Philip and I have laughed about it so many times since our afternoon in the parfumerie. And out of the jumble of ballet French and random vocabulary I’ve pocketed over the years, I pulled out another adverb, coupling it with the one I had in hand as a sort-of motto for my aventure en Français:
Maintenant ou jamais. Now or never.
And while I’m throwing caution to the winds, it might just be the time to try out a new scent. Pourquoi pas?