forever a student

I just finished an intense course at La Sorbonne. It was exactly what I needed, (and feared), to get back into the groove of speaking French. And simply, to provide a routine to my days. My life as of late is the dream of many, my Italian included. Early morning walks from the right bank to the left, gazing at a tranquil Seine, studying in a cafe in the Latin Quarter overlooked by the Pantheon (dream ends here), hours of phonetics classes making vocal sounds I did not know were possible, and many more hours of irregular verb conjugations combined with the seemingly infinite grammatical nuances of the French language. I learned ALOT. In a very short amount of time. I was focused. I studied. I made it a point to understand and after 4 long weeks of nearly 6 hours of French studies a day, I feel slightly more overwhelmed and much more fluent. It was all well worth it (though there were indeed moments of protest). And yes, all the rumors are true, La Sorbonne WILL make a good student out of you! I must add that this experience reigned supreme over my months at the Alliance Française. Perhaps I needed the discipline. Or perhaps this time I was ready to learn. 

As a reward for my diligence, or simply because we are both in need of a holiday, tomorrow we are flying to Corsica. This time to explore the North. Once again, to be lost in the magical Île de Beauté.

living a language

I have decided to take a break from studying French the traditional way (also known as taking classes), given that I can almost speak naturally in the present tense, delving occasionally into the past and future, excluding certain irregular verbs. I am doing my best to find ways to immerse myself in the culture and learn through speaking, observing, doing…in other words, learn by the act of ‘living’. So far it’s been quite a sensory adventure!

Listen. It’s interesting how much we actually do understand when we need to. I recently had my coffee read by a Turkish woman, an apparent expert in such matters. When someone is speaking to you about your life and relative ‘pursuits of happiness’ you listen! And somehow, I understood. I did have a friend with me to translate, in case I completely misunderstood my fate. It was surely an experience. Do I believe what she told me, (or what I think she told me)? That remains to be decided. What I do know is that surely this is the path that is assigned to me. But I did not need a ‘fortune teller’ to confirm that.

Watch. Since I don’t have a TV at home, and that seems to be a great way to learn French, I decided to try the French Cinema. (In my opinion one of the best in the world). My first film in French was Coco Avant Chanel. Thankfully Audrey Tautou is expressive enough to be understood without words! I was deeply moved by the scenes, by what I imagined was taking place, and as soon as the film was finished I read the history to better understand the story of this impressive woman. Was this experience a success? More or less, or less than more, but it was surely an attempt! Ironic that once upon a time I would only watch foreign (mostly French) films and now I am limited to Hollywood blockbusters, another motivation to learn French!

Read. I grew up reading the The New York Times and look forward to the day when I can read the French equivalent. Does it even exist? Meanwhile, whenever I pass a 20 Minutes journal, found in most metro stations, I pick it up, and attempt to read it. This seems to be the best way to learn a language, by understanding the literary construction. If it’s an interesting enough article, preferably about art, travel or the state of affairs in America, I will do my best to decipher this linguistic puzzle. This too is a great way to understand the people and culture, as the written word is taken quite seriously in France. Next on my reading list is Les Enfants Terribles by Jean Cocteau, my first (adult) French book….

Look. I spend a lot of time walking around the city, exploring, reading the signs on streets, in store windows… Everywhere I look I am learning, searching for words in my dictionary. To understand, for example, why the trendy Cambodian restaurant is closed on a Saturday night. ‘Partir voir la neige’ read the sign. Ah yes, the owners have ‘gone to see the snow’. (Only in France!)

Taste. This is surely a great way to learn a language, considering Paris is a gastronomic capital of the world. Taste the menu, to be certain of what you are eating, fearlessly of course. Coupled with a good glass or two of wine the conversation is sure to flow more smoothly!

Speak. As often as possible I express myself in French, rather creatively I might add, to whomever will listen. Simply leaving the house provides many opportunities in which to practice. My conversations with the woman at the local boulangerie are rather limited, as with the friendly man at the vegetable stand (though I am learning a lot about herbs!). I suspect it’s my hairdresser who notices my progress most of all. We almost speak as though we were friends, versus when I first arrived to Paris I would simply point and smile. Most of all I speak at home, with the most patient of teachers who has himself experienced what it feels like to live in a world of misunderstandings.

What great sensory experiences am I missing…

lessons learned in French class…

I am learning much more in my French class than the seemingly endless conjugations of irregular verbs. Namely, the geographical locations and vivid descriptions of ‘les DOM-TOM’, the French islands scattered within the world’s oceans. (Perhaps in Martinique there’s an extensive French program and I could add Creole to my language skills?) My last assignment, as the gods of fate would have it, was to write a travel article on NYC, ‘la ville extraordinaire!’. Needless to say I became very passionate about accurately depicting a place I know so well.

The greatest lessons learned are in observation of the many foreign lives each trying to make sense in a language not their own. One classmate in particular left an impression on me. This woman from Houston, Texas, with husband and kids in tow, decided to leave a very settled life and spend one year in Paris. Simply because she and her husband noticed how spoiled their children had become and decided it necessary to expand their outlook of the world while enhancing their appreciation of ‘home’. This was no easy task, uprooting three girls aged 2, 11 and 17, attending French schools, adjusting to a new culture (one which is not the most accepting of outsiders I might add). I applaud her for such a daring and challenging move. I am certain her children, at least the older girls, will learn valuable life lessons on this path less taken.

French 101

Today I began my French classes, a new chapter in my life as a student. When I finally decided that the most successful way to learn a language is to speak with people other than my local baker, butcher and pharmacist (though we were having some rather colorful conversations as of late), I was debated as to where to study. To quote an Italian I know well ‘there is no such thing as a bad school, only a bad student’. Could he be right?

In the end I chose the reputation of the Alliance Française over the prestige of the Sorbonne. Not to mention the myriad of independent language schools. I entered the classroom and felt well amidst the assortment of foreign faces, each with a unique story and all united in a common goal. The teacher, a young and vibrant woman originally from Bretagne, immediately shed any layers of fear as we began conversing with one another. The first lesson I learned as we dove into this advanced French course, is that my genealogy is far too complex to describe in great detail, in any language. The second lesson, a recurring one in my life in Paris, is humility.

the living language

Learning a language is not merely a lesson in the linguistic nuances of a culture, it is a lesson in humility. This I have learned quickly through my expansive collection of children’s books (Babar and Martine being my favorites). I have tried several times in my life to learn French. Convinced that I was once French, it should not be such a difficult task. Somehow all of my many attempts proved unsuccessful. Perhaps complete immersion is the only answer. So here I am, completely immersed. The entire city of Paris is my classroom.

I breath French air, drink French wine (often I must admit), listen to countless hours of French songs…I even sometimes adopt a French attitude which entails less speaking and more gesticulating. This is all in addition to my studies of course, my self-motivated, highly optimistic, “study-in-the-comfort-of-your-own-home” approach. Also known as Rosetta Stone. This method is as effective as I choose it to be. So far so good. I have almost devised a morning routine. Almost. More effective than computer courses or classes even, is speaking with my live-in tutor. He has gone through the travails of learning French, has many tips to share and much compassion to offer. Did I think it would be easy? Did I think I would inhale the sounds emanating from the voices surrounding me and thus gain proficiency? Maybe.