It All Started with Paris
“Make one day Day One.” I saw this phrase yesterday on an advertisement. What a great phrase. Reminds me of how this whole crazy idea of mine started; the idea of learning a language and traveling to the country where people speak that language. Make your one day Day One. Paris was always a one-day-I-would-love-to-go dream. Suddenly I was forty. My daughter, Claudia, was on the verge of high school and our one days together seemed to be numbered. I had never even been to Europe.
My infatuation with Paris and French began in the ballet classes of my childhood. French is the language of ballet. I chose French for my second language in middle school. Madame Champion taught it ineffectually by having us conjugate verbs and memorize words for spelling tests. She spent most of her time marching up and down the aisle of the classroom monitoring my conduct and calling home to complain of my impertinent mouth. I remember telling a boy that his mother wore combat boots. I remember that remark leading to a call home. What I do not remember is speaking French. Claudia, on the other hand, attended Notre Dame des Victoires where she started learning French in kindergarten. She learned poems and songs, However, by seventh grade, if anyone spoke to her in French, she turned red and grew mute. She had all of her language locked in her head. She lacked the confidence to engage in conversation.
One day, our book group read a very dreary book about a women who was diagnosed with brain cancer. Our discussion of the book centered on the thought of what if we each had only one year to live. Would we do anything differently. If we would do things differently, why weren’t we living that way now. What would we change to make the year really count. Suddenly, all of those one days seemed urgent. Why was I delaying my dreams to one day? I decided Paris was going to happen. I was going to learn French so I could help Claudia become more confident in her French. One day became Day One of Project April in Paris.
I met Arcene through my friend, Carlito the court reporter. Arcene was tutoring Carlito in French. I contacted Arcene who immediately agreed to come to my office once a week to tutor me at lunch. On the day of our first lesson, I greet Arcene at the front desk of my office. He has his bicycle and a huge smile that brightens his whole face. Arcene is from Marseille via Cameroon. His method is simple. We sit and begin to speak French. As I struggle to find the words in my brain from middle school French class, Arcene takes out a sheet of paper and writes down the correct words. After conversing for thirty minutes, Arcene reviews the words and provides a brief grammar lesson.
We repeat this format for several months, practicing various scenarios such as asking for directions, ordering meals, shopping or introductions. He teaches me to be CAREFUL when speaking French. This acronym represents the letters C,R,F and L, the letters you do pronounce at the end of French words. He also teaches me how to taunt players on the soccer field: “Tu joue comme un poulet mouillé” (you play like a wet chicken.) I learn how to find a way to be understood even if I do not know all the words. Perfection is not the goal, it is connection.
Best Language Book Ever
One day, Arcene brings a book to our lesson. “This book,” he explains, “is a great way to learn French and get some cultural insight.” The book is Tune Up Your French by Natalie Schorr. It is a language guide and a crash course on French culture. It has a CD companion which I promptly pop in my car’s CD player and listen to the ten tips on my morning commute. I learn that ordering a grand crème will get me the Parisian equivalent of a Starbuck’s latte. I learn that “oh la la” is not sexy, it is bad. The bigger the disaster the more “la’s” you add to the end. I learn to always say “Bonjour Madame” when I enter a store because failure to greet the shopkeeper is rude and simply saying “bonjour” is too curt. I learn that the French eat everything with a knife and fork. Later, I think of this lesson as I watch in awe as a beautiful young French woman dissects her four inch high hamburger with the precision of a surgeon, slicing and eating each delicate bite. I learn that at restaurants, Parisian speak softly, creating a feeling of intimacy. I should never touch the fruit at the market, never ask for salad dressing on the side and never bring wine to a French person’s house for dinner.
Arrival in Paris – Push the Button
Claudia and I arrive in Paris in the early morning of Easter Sunday in 2009. We are about to embark upon what will seem like a mini segment from the Amazing Race. We have to figure out how to catch the train from the airport to Paris, transfer to the Metro, find an apartment in the Left Bank, enter a code to remove the key, get back on the metro, get off at the Odéon metro stop and find our apartment. Les doigts dans le nez (“[as easy as putting] one’s fingers in one’s nose”).
We grab our suitcases and head toward the train. Within a few minutes of arriving on the platform, the train rolls into the station. The train looks just like the San Francisco BART. We stand in front of the glass door and wait for the door to slide open. Suddenly, the train accelerates and leaves us standing on the platform looking with bewilderment at the departing train. Claudia looks at me. “What happened?” Claudia looks around, “wait a minute, there were people standing over there and now there are gone. They must have gotten on the train.” We wait for another twenty minutes, the twelve-hour plane ride from San Francisco is starting to weigh down on our enthusiasm. Another train rolls into the station. This time Claudia and I stand where the people who got on the earlier train stood, hoping the doors at this end will open. Again, the train doors stay firmly shut. Claudia looks around frantically at the French people who are standing further down the platform. She lunges forward and pushes a button on the door marked “poussez ici.” The door slides open and we are inside. “From now on,” Claudia looks at me with a victorious smile “when in doubt, look at what the French are doing. I saw someone push the button.”
Claudia Gets her Confidence
Our first few days in Paris, I do all the talking. I ask for directions, buy our museum passes, and order our meals all in French. I am in heaven. I speak French and people respond to me in French. Not once do I meet the phantom Parisian of the stereotype who refuses to speak French with me. On our third day, Claudia and I find a restaurant on the Rue des Beaux-Arts. As the waiter approaches, Claudia puts her hand on my arm, “let me do it mom.” I look at her in pleasant surprise. She opens her menu and out of her mouth pours the most beautiful French I have ever heard; effortless, soft, authentically accented. The waiter smiles and nods. That night we dine on escargot and coeur collant, a chocolate cake with a hot liquid center.
Ça Dépend – That Depends
“Ça dépend.” The man behind the counter at the train station looks at me with a mixture of boredom and blasé. “Ça dépend de quoi?” (That depends on what) I retort. “Ça dépend” he repeats and looks back down at the book he is reading. Claudia is standing behind me. We are on our way to Vernon. We are standing in the middle of the St. Lazare train station. I have successfully purchased the tickets for the next train to Vernon. However, I have no idea which platform to go to catch the train. When I ask the man behind the counter, “which platform,” he responds “ça dépend.” “Well,” Claudia looks at me “when in doubt look at what the French are doing.” We look and see a large group of smartly dressed Parisians staring at a large digital display. Suddenly, a number starts to blink next to a destination name and the group rushes towards the incoming train. “Oh,” says Claudia “it is just like Grand Central Station.” We watch “Vernon” on the display. A few minutes later, a number blinks on the screen and we rush towards our train.
Claudia Gets the Ultimate Compliment
Paris transforms Claudia. She studies it and its inhabitants intensively. She has a simple point and shoot camera. However, her photographs reveal that she has a real eye for composition. She speaks only French to me now. On our fifth day, we wander near the Sorbonne. She stops at a street vendor and buys a scarf, wrapping it around her neck in that oh so French way. That evening as we walk to our apartment near Carrefour Odéon, a French couple stops us to ask directions. Claudia smiles and explains to them in French that we are tourists too. As they walk away, Claudia turns to me. “They thought we were French!” she says to me in thrilled excitement. To her, this is the ultimate compliment. For me, Project April in Paris is officially a complete success.
Life is an adventure, not a destination. Live la vie en rose.