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Friday, January 12, 2018

D’habitude je voyage en français

It was a while ago....

Most of my travel to foreign countries has taken me either to Canada or to France. I have lived in Paris for brief periods and could live quite happily in Montreal. Even on a road trip around Scotland once, I was with bilingual speakers of French and English, and we generally spoke French in the car. Is it any wonder, then, that I associate foreign travel with the French language?

Sometimes going places within the United States triggers my French response. During the two years I lived in Cincinnati, Ohio, whenever I crossed the beautiful Roebling Bridge to Covington, Kentucky, I had the feeling I was leaving English behind and would be asked to show my passport on the far bank of the river. The Ohio River seemed that significant a border. And there are still occasions, driving around my home ground in Leelanau County, when I imagine my dear friend Helene, from Paris, with me in the car, and as we go down the roads I point out and explain to her various aspects of the Michigan landscape.

As the twig is bent, it is said, so the tree inclines. The high point of my father’s life was the time he spent in Paris after the city’s liberation at the end of World War II. 

His high school French got such a workout, he said, that it gave him a headache, but the experience was also heady in a positive sense. The young American lieutenant, sitting up all night in a bistro in Paris, discussing Corneille with Frenchmen! Is it any wonder he wanted his daughters (and I was the first-born) to learn as a second language the one that had brought him such excitement? Or any wonder that I caught the francophone fever at a very young age and never recovered?

Je t’adore,” my father would murmur affectionately, and he would call me his “petit choux-fleur” (little cabbage or Brussels sprout, an untranslatable term of endearment), but when he barked an order it was always issued formally: “Fermez la porte!” Thus when my high school French teacher on the first day of class, bound to immerse us in the language, began by issuing the familiar command to shut the door (the hallway was very noisy in a school of 5,000 students), it was no mystery to me what he was saying. I felt, happily, right at home. 

The French-speaking parts of my father’s war experience were his best times, first billeted in a private home in the Netherlands, and later, as liquor control officer in the south of France, making trips up to Paris for troop “supplies.” Between those times, however, he was stationed for a while in the Tongan Islands, where his group of engineers constructed an airstrip for Allied landings in the Pacific. That place was a very different kettle of international fish. Outdoor showers! An enormous bunch of fresh bananas hung in a tree outside his tent every day!

In the 1940s, as I understand it, the Tongan language had yet to take written form. My father, therefore, ever the amateur linguist, took it upon himself to assemble the beginnings of a Tongan dictionary. Alors, besides French, my sisters and I learned to say a few simple phrases in Tongan. Imagine my surprise and delight, many years later, to encounter Tongan phrases in a book (by a young man who sailed solo around the world) and to understand those foreign phrases! The sounds really meant what my father had told us they meant! Real people spoke to each other in those words I was taught as a child! How satisfying!

In the wee dark hours of the night before departure for Mexico, where a friend and I would be conducted on a five-day, six-person tour of Mayan ruins in the Yucatan peninsula, as I was casting about in the middle of the night for phrases in Spanish (a language I studied for only a single year in high school), more often French words and phrases, maddeningly, came to mind. After all, the total experience and history of my lifetime was deciding, in whatever unconscious part of the mind that sorts these things out, that I was going abroad; therefore, I should be speaking French. Descartes would have understood, I’m sure (I; therefore, I, if you see what I mean), but I felt the decider in my head was decidedly unhelpful in this instance. 

How to escape middle-of-the-night travel anxiety? An emergency scenario came into my mind, of course! There I was in Mexico, having to explain myself in a foreign country to medical personnel who spoke no English! Omigod! Mon dieu!

— Was it cheating on my part to introduce into the imaginary scene an intern from Haiti who spoke (thank you again, Descartes) clear and distinct French?

I cannot now reconstruct the train of thought that took me from that imaginary hospital back to the lobby of an imaginary hotel or how I managed to bring imaginary Tongan tourists to the hotel lobby, but you can guess how delighted I was to encounter them! “Malolalei!” I greeted them with joyful enthusiasm, and broad smiles and sparkling eyes on their part told me my greeting had succeeded. One of the women had a baby. “Tomasii? Taahini?” I asked. (My spellings of all these words are my own, the best I can do. Ask me to pronounce them, and I’ll do just fine.) The baby was a boy, the mother told me, and I gave my compliment on the child’s beauty immediately: “Faka ofa ofa opito opito!” and somehow I worked into the exchange my two remaining Tongan phrases, the How-are-you-I-am-fine component, before I was thrown back, once more, onto French — which one of their party spoke perfectly! 

Just my luck! Saved from the middle-of-the-night heebie-jeebies!

Back when I was eighteen and for many years after, I had great language-learning hopes and plans. I wanted to learn Greek (to read Aristotle in the original), Hebrew (for reading the Bible and works of Jewish scholars), Russian (such great literature!), and Amharic (because an Ethiopian friend and I had concocted a scheme that called for me to spend a year with her family in Addis Ababa). I would also, of course, brush up on and extend my Spanish to a proficiency level and add a bit of Italian while I was at it. Ambitious program, but others have done it, made whole careers in languages.

One spring in Paris, I gave myself an assignment to learn Italian from a book written for French speakers, reasoning that building a bridge from French to Italian, rather than working from English to Italian, would strengthen rather than eclipse my working French, but the only phrase that sticks with me now is “I ate too well.” On a different project, another year, I learned to say “I’m sorry” and how to order “baked eels” in Dutch. More seriously, I took beginning American Sign Language over and over again, year after year, each time temporarily achieving a decent beginner’s level of proficiency, only to lose it for lack of practice.

But French, its rudiments drilled into me at a young age, has persisted. Over the years, occasional French tourists in my bookstore have provided me with an opportunity for conversation, and there are always French movies and books in French to keep those brain cells alive. I never did learn the Greek or Hebrew or Russian or Amharic alphabets but am pretty comfortable with French accents and vigorously oppose (for reasons of history and tradition and personal attachment) the abandonment of the accent circonflex. 

One of my two biggest complaints against the program I am using on my new laptop is that it has no way to insert symbols or accent marks! (I managed the heading for this post by finding the word in my Internet search bar and copying and pasting it.) They are not in my mail program, either, as they were on the old laptop. Curses! I must overcome this lack in the near future….

1/6/2018. I set myself this little composing task before sunrise on departure day, and it has served its purpose: That is, re-living my personal foreign language history has successfully taken my mind away from worries about a drifted-over driveway or icy roads or a delayed or cancelled flight. And everything will be all right, I’m sure. — In fact, by the time this post is published on Books in Northport, I will be back from Mexico, with worries all behind me, a great store of new memories, and many more recent stories, including whatever splendid successes or horrible failures I have with the Spanish language south of the border.

Friday, 1/12 - I am back home!!!

1 comment:

Dawn said...

Glad you're home safe and sound. I look forward to hearing about your trip and what you saw. But I enjoyed this because I took 2 years of French in high school, and could follow along.

Bruce and I went to Cancun many years ago and took a bus trip back into the jungle to see some Mayan ruins. It was really fascinating.