Me and French, or What I Did During the Pandemic
(Moi et le français, ou Ce que j’ai fais pendant la pandémie)
One night I was sitting on my broken-down sofa in San Francisco thinking about all the things I had tried and failed to be good at in my life: tennis, volleyball, swimming, the piano, the guitar, Italian, French. When I later told a friend about this, that person said, “Well, that doesn’t seem like a very good thing to do.”
I wanted to study Latin as my foreign language in high school, as I had somehow gleaned that Latin was classy and also the thing to study if you wanted to be a writer. But just that year, my small high school in the Missouri Ozarks discontinued Latin and offered Spanish instead, which I considered a poor substitute unworthy of my attention. When, I said to myself, years before moving to California and living there for decades, would I ever need to know Spanish? I don’t know what Mabel Mottaz (who was not Spanish), the high school counselor, thought about this; I don’t remember her or anyone else bothering to tell me that I should study a foreign language if I wanted to go to college.
When I went off to college at Missouri University and had to take a foreign language, I decided to take French, thinking it was the sophisticated choice among languages, although my only real connection with that country had been the round dark-blue Evening in Paris perfume bottles in the Rexall drugstore back home. Unfortunately, because I tested well in what passed for college entrance exams in those days, I was put into a beginning French class with other people who had tested well and were supposedly smart enough to learn French easily. This did not hold true for me, and I spent the rest of the semester in désespoir (despair).
My teacher, whose name I do not remember, was a small, slender, youngish man with black hair and black-rimmed glasses. I remember him as being kind to me, despite the fact that I was terrible at French. Nothing about it made any sense to me: the words themselves, how they went together, how they were pronounced. Whenever I answered a question from my teacher with Je ne sais pas, the only thing I learned to say in that class, one side of his mouth would involuntarily turn up slightly in a half-smile. I believe kindness was the reason he gave me an F+ on the midterm, because in all my years of telling this story I have never met anyone who has ever heard of an F+.
I called my mother from the tiny phone booth in Temporary Dormitory No. 4 and told her, weeping, that I was failing five hours of French in the first semester of my freshman year, and my mother, who was always terrified that I would fail her in horrible ways, was of course appalled. College was already a loaded subject, because my brother had flunked out of his several years before, a huge scandal for my family-doctor father and my occasional-high-school-teacher mother. I eventually made it through the class, saying Je ne sais pas innumerable times, and emerged with five hours of D.
Many years later, going through a box of my old papers and letters while closing up my parents’ house in Missouri, I found a note I’d written back then, to myself, I guess. It said that my French teacher told me that he hated to give pop quizzes, because I always got such a frightened look on my face. And in a letter from my mother, I read, “Daddy says he doesn’t think it’s so terrible that you got an F+ on your French test.” I still can’t believe my cold, always irritated, and expecting-the-worst-from-both-of-his-children father said this.
But I suppose all this is why I have turned out to be, of all things, a Francophile (francophile), and why I am still trying to learn French. Why else would I choose to learn a language with such a limited vocabulary that many words mean more than one thing; where so many of the words sound exactly alike and you can’t know what they mean until you know the context; where so many of the letters in so many words are not pronounced or are pronounced but are sometimes pronounced differently—neuf, huit, cinq, plus, tous, tout, etc., etc., etc.—depending on context; where all the words run together (except for the ones that don’t, because there are three different categories of liaisons: required, optional, and interdit [“forbidden”]; where people speak as fast as is humanly possible; where many of the words sound like sexually suggestive (sexuellement suggestive) grunts and moans (and I’m not even going to bring up the French r and the French u); where many words are “false friends” (faux amis): they are the same or have the same root in both French and English but mean two different things (entrée, canapé, etc., etc., etc.); where the pronunciation is so precious (précieux) and precise (précis) that it requires you to repeatedly purse your lips and twist your face into grimaces, thereby deepening the little vertical lines on your upper lip; where every single thing has a gender that has nothing to do with the thing itself (including countries, states, and provinces, etc., etc., etc.); and where the adjectives have to agree with the gender (except for the ones that don’t) even if it makes no sense considering the subject, and where all the parts have to agree in number (except for the ones that don’t), and everything fits together like an intricate puzzle but if you get one little thing wrong, it’s all wrong; where every grammatical rule has many, many exceptions; where articles mean the same things but are used in different ways and pop up unexpectedly for obscure reasons (J’aime la salade [“I like salad”] but Je veux de la salade [“I want salad”]; where the same little prepositions mean many different things and also pop up and vanish without obvious cause; where diacritical marks that no one really understands and which may be archaic appear and disappear over letters with abandon; where the phrases you learn in French class (je ne sais pas) are not used in real life (shay pas); where Parisian French is not spoken in some of the country and certainly not by the male robot on Duolingo, who seems to be from southern France but who sounds oddly Swedish (suédois); and where so much of the language is weirdly idiomatic?
And why do I love the country of this language, what little I know about it, and want to speak its language fluently, except that so much of it is beautiful and because in many ways—food, culture, custom, esthetics, history, art, architecture, history, and so on and so on—it is the opposite of the place I grew up, so that to fit into that country would mean that I have finally escaped the place of my birth?
I even went on in the next semester after my five hours of D to take French Reading, where I made a B because reading French is so much easier than speaking or writing it. Years later, when the language series French in Action became popular, I took a class in that method at City College in San Francisco and learned about some of the many adventures involving Mireille, Marie-Laure, and Robert. But from all the books and tapes and classes that course entailed, I remember exactly two things: C’est mortel, la mer, quand il pleut (“It is deadly, the sea, when it rains”) and Mystère et boule de gomme!, which means “Mystery and gum ball,” but no one knows what that means.
When I somehow lucked into leading writing workshops in Europe, thereby being able to afford to go to Paris afterward, I started taking French again (after a side trip into Italian, which didn’t get me very far). I took classes at the Alliance Française and at a school called the French Class, which I loved and could afford because those were the days when I was happily abusing credit cards. I would study a while before each trip to Europe, but once I came back I wouldn’t keep studying until a few months before the next trip. When I realized that being in a class with people who spoke French even worse than I did was not helpful for my pronunciation, I found a series of lovely young French persons whom I met sporadically in cafes for French conversation. This was fun for me, but I have only lately realized it must have been painful for them.
Now that I’m trapped at home, self-isolating during the COVID-19 pandemic, I am not writing a new novel or trying to get my old one published, not writing new poems about the pandemic or anything else and not trying to get old poems published, not really going through my papers or finishing any of several projects I’ve started, not cleaning any more than small parts of my house in a haphazard fashion, not taking Zoom ballet classes or Zoom samba classes or Zoom Zumba or tai chi or yoga or qi gong classes, but instead I am studying French on Duolingo, ensnared in their complicated hierarchy of rewards and punishments and Leagues and Hearts and Streaks and Stories and Achievements and XP’s (some kind of points) and Gems and so much more that I haven’t figured out yet, endlessly learning how to say who is and who is not canadienne or canadien as the case may be; delving into Duolingo Forums where people complain incessantly because they refuse to accept that French is not logical (in spite of being the language of Descartes) and is different from English and because Duolingo is not perfect since it’s all algorithms and artificial intelligence.
Now I spend my days lying in bed (allongé dans mon lit) or on my broken-down sofa (canapé en panne) with my iPad, endlessly repeating sentences that I probably will never use in real life, such as Ce sont des souris grosses (“These are fat mice”) and Notre quatrième fils a acheté une maison (“Our fourth son bought a house”); taking timed quizzes that literally make me dizzy and which I almost never win; trying to stay in the Top Ten of the Amethyst League so I can advance to the Pearl League while battling people named Bogdan and Mehmet for first or second or third place; and so much more (tellement plus!) and thinking that somehow this will redeem all those years and all that money trying to simply learn enough French that I can hold a minimal conversation with a person in Paris and not ask a salesperson if I can buy a snake when I want to buy soap, as I have done in the past. And that somewhere, somehow, I will make my first French teacher, whose name I can’t remember and who may no longer even be with us, smile (sourire).
Carolyn Miller is a poet and freelance writer living in San Francisco. Her most recent book of poetry is Route 66 and Its Sorrows (Terrapin Books, 2017). Two earlier books, Light, Moving (2009) and After Cocteau (2002), were published by Sixteen Rivers Press. Her work has appeared in The Gettysburg Review, The Southern Review, The Missouri Review, The Georgia Review, and Prairie Schooner, among many other journals, and her awards include the James Boatwright III Prize for Poetry from Shenandoah and the Rainmaker Award from Zone 3.
Cover artwork: Carmine Lo Regio “Film a fiori o ricordi con le camelie”