My mother must have had a decent command of French. Sometimes, as I was growing up, she’d refer to it, though always briefly and casually, as if the subject had little importance. All I ever found out was that she had taught elementary–perhaps even intermediate–French as well as English literature (using a textbook called From Beowulf to Thomas Hardy) at New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn in the 1930s. That was before my father and then I came into her life and changed her career to that of housewife and mother.
But she had kept some of the French textbooks she used (which, since her death, I harbor for nostalgia’s sake) and in our basement two deep drawers of a rickety bureau were crammed with several hundred unused picture postcards displaying French “places of interest.” I wanted to ask her, but couldn’t : Did she have no time to put the postcards in order? Would looking at each of them be a series of stabs to her heart? Could it be possible that she didn’t care anymore about the sites they showed?
More evidence: When I was very young, my mother would often lie on the living room couch for an hour in the late afternoon, reading (she was an indefatigable reader), as she rested between sieges of her household labors, which included assisting my father with his medical practice–conducted under our roof–as nurse, receptionist, and cleaner. If I wandered through the living room during this repose, she would occasionally, like a kindly sergeant, fond of his youngest, least experienced cadet, issue a simple command in French that I would rush to fulfill, as if the foreign language turned it into a critical military mission. She taught me what her “orders” meant and I memorized the meanings swiftly. The only command I still remember was “Apportez-moi un verre d’eau, s’il vous plaît.” (Bring me a glass of water, please.) I assume now that she used the formal rather than the familiar you to enhance the gravity of the errand.
You might say that these French “lessons” were trivial, but I think not. They planted the seed.
My formal study of French, if it can be called that, began in junior high school, with a Miss Brenner. I assumed she was American, because her French accent was atrocious. That was obvious even if you didn’t have a lot to go by. She spoke in a dreary nasal monotone and if she had a love of French or a sense of excitement about learning it she kept these feelings at home. My first few months under her tutelage were a nightmare because I couldn’t rid myself of my idée fixe that there was an exact French equivalent for every English word, so that one need only memorize several thousand of these equivalents and arrange the foreign words in the same order as one did the words in one’s mother tongue. It was my own mother who gently disabused me of this naïveté and, in the process, enhanced my sense of wonder about foreign languages. French and all the others did not comprise single words set in a universally observed pattern, but a unique manner of speaking, even a way of thinking.
I managed to get through my two years with Miss Brenner with my attraction to French intact and moved on to Samuel J. Tilden High School, where I worked my way up to the most advanced (not very) course in French given by a Dr. Schwartzback. He was a coarse-voiced, grumpy guy of a certain age who didn’t seem to have much more enthusiasm for French (or, for that matter, teaching) than Miss Brenner did. I discovered recently that he grew up speaking German and earned his living teaching it when he emigrated to the United States. Because of the American anti-German sentiment generated by World War II, he was forced to pursue his career instructing Brooklyn adolescents in French. All I recall from the year I studied with him was a far closer reading of Cyrano de Bergerac than that play deserves. At graduation, I was awarded the French medal–on qualifications that, today, a mere month of diligent work with Rosetta Stone could easily surpass.
Still, once I started college, French remained my language of choice. Why, I’m not sure. Perhaps because of my mother’s affection for the language and its culture, which was, apparently, largely fostered by her recollection of a summer of study abroad before she married. She did nothing to further her fondness for the land or its lingo, apart from luring me into its pursuit with a few sentences gorgeously pronounced and helping me realize that a foreign language was a world of its own. Or perhaps I remained steadfastly attracted to French because so many aspects of its culture were held to be the acme of glamour at the time, and glamour proved a powerful magnet to me in my innocent youth. I confess that, even today, it exerts its pull.
The college placement exam for French, however, was nearly my undoing. I’d chosen to attend Barnard, the all-women’s undergraduate division of Columbia University, mostly because it was in New York, which I knew and loved as an artistic mecca. Barnard was a member of the Seven Sisters, the equivalent of the Ivy League, presumably the top-ranked of the country’s men’s colleges (gender segregation still being rampant in the fifties). Because of its exalted position, Barnard refused to depend on the evaluation of the heterogeneous assortment of high schools its first-year students came from and certainly didn’t think of asking the students themselves what level they thought suited the modest skills they had acquired thus far. I was certain I belonged in third-year French, which would have had me reviewing and extending my abilities in matters of grammar and vocabulary, while challenging me with brief, reasonably accessible passages from the literature for which France is rightly celebrated. But no.
My grade in the exam probably fell on the cusp or just a point or two over it into the next level–”French Literature from the Middle Ages to the Present,” or some such title. This was a year-long survey course that, if you survived it, qualified you to study in depth each of the centuries and significant literary movements it covered all too swiftly. Since I had no expectation of surviving it, though, I didn’t worry about the future, only the present, which seemed to me hopeless.
The instructor was a Mme. de Wyzewa, a frail-looking elderly woman, with an equally frail voice. For 50 minutes, three mornings a week, she stood before us and lectured in her native language, barely audible but with razor-sharp diction, occasionally turning to scrawl a hard-to-spell author’s name or some birth and death dates on the dusty blackboard behind her. Everything about her–her pinched face, her wispy grey hair, her faint voice, her shaky handwriting, even the passing hints she exuded of formidable erudition–seemed made from chalk dust. More disconcerting than this ghostliness (which I now see as a mix of pathos and dignity) was the fact that I didn’t understand a single word she said. Today, a student with this problem would stride into the office of the French Department and insist upon being dropped a level, into a world of comprehension. Not then. In my undergraduate days, the domain of teaching was ruled by professors and administrators. A student had little or no say.
My solution was to scribble phonetically every word I could make out at the lectures. Then, in the course of the day I would–usually in the company of my dear friend Helen, who shared my plight and response–spend nearly two hours trying to make sense of our phonetic scribblings. (Helen’s face, capable of launching a thousand ships, did nothing for her here.) Suddenly, however, after six weeks of our absurd, frustrating labors, in a flash, we understood everything, even the subtleties our elusive professor had been trying to impart. The light had dawned and we loved French forever. I can’t understand how or why this happened, but I don’t care. Perhaps the magical illumination was a miracle. We certainly needed one.
Although I was officially a writing major in Barnard’s English Department, I made sure to spend plenty of time in the quarters of the French Department, just hanging out to exercise my spoken French (preferably while smoking Gauloises) and taking courses with a number of the instructors. The professor who made the strongest impression on me was Renée Kohn, a native Parisian who was doing a decade-long stint in New York.
Students, especially young impressionable ones, are extra-sensitive to how their teachers look. Barely a decade younger than Mme. Kohn, my classmates and I easily fell prey to her particular beauty. She combined a modest version of the sophistication that French women seem to be born with and the luminous innocence of a child. Small and slender, she’d brush off any praise of her figure that the bolder girls might offer privately with, “Oh, but I’m not like you Americans, with your beautiful legs.” She had a point. I think that several of us who studied ballet gave her cause–not for envy, but for longing.
Her long hair was worthy of a Renaissance princess and accordingly a legend in the college. She wore it in one thick braid that she pinned (not a pin showing, naturally) over her head like a coronet. Rumor had it that, if she left her hair unbound, she could sit on it, which, as I discovered much later, was so.
If you praised her as a teacher, she’d brush off the compliment as if she truly believed she didn’t earn it, laughing a little and saying, “Oh, It’s just my hands. I guess I move them a lot, and my students think they’re graceful.”
In truth, she was a memorable teacher but not one of those stellar professors whose insights pierce your brain like an electric shock. What she gave us was essentially her love and admiration for the literature she shared with us. Many of us, stirred by the deep feeling she had for her subject, pored over the texts she assigned so that we could discover the source of her delight and, eventually, cultivate our own.
In a one-on-one conference, she was the epitome of empathy, without relinquishing her duty to correct you and to urge you, kindly but very seriously, to greater effort. Invariably she left you with the impression that it wasn’t she who demanded the effort but the language and the literature themselves.
After I had graduated and she and her family moved back to Paris, we wrote to each other occasionally, then, as time went by, more often, and gradually we became friends.
The snobbery of the French–and of Parisians in particular–is legendary. Erik, a Danish colleague of mine, let me and my husband borrow his minuscule pied à terre in Paris for a couple of summery weeks when he wasn’t using it. No matter that the sofa had to double as a pullout bed for two, which often startlingly snapped shut when we were asleep in it, and that the dining table served in off hours as a desk, being the only sizeable flat, firm surface in the place. No matter that the “shower” was not an enclosure but simply a shower head installed in the corner of the ceiling of a kitchen so tightly packed with culinary essentials that it was impossible for one of us to open the oven door to extract a roasting chicken at the critical moment while the other was bathing.
The enchantment of leading a primitive domestic life in these quarters was increased to sheer bliss by the fact that the apartment lay at the foot of one of the most ravishing and abundant open-air food markets in all of Paris. Because of it, we dined and picnicked luxuriously. I tried to conduct all my market transactions in French–for fruit and vegetables; seafood, chicken, and meat; butter, cheese, and pastry out of a fairy tale–letting my husband handle the money (to this day, I can’t understand foreign money) and constantly forgetting that one kilo does not equal one pound but over two.
Having a temporary domestic base then gave us the notion that we should do our laundry at the local laundromat. So one morning, lugging our bundle of washing, we stopped off first at a tiny household-supplies store to buy the liquid detergent and fabric softener we’d need. The detergent transaction went fine; the small cluttered shop carrying the usual U.S. brands. The softener, though, nearly caused an incident in international relations.
I had looked up the word in Erik’s French-English dictionary before leaving the apartment. I muttered it to myself all the way to the store and, once there, asked politely in French for some assouplissante. “Comment?” (What?) was the shopkeeper’s reply, as if he had been addressed by an idiot. “De l’assouplissante, s’il vous plaÎt, monsieur,” adding the “please” and the “sir” to help matters along. “Comment?” he repeated, his tone indicating that my request was utterly incomprehensible and possibly insulting. After a third round of the same, he raised a thick, grubby finger to his grizzled head as if the light had dawned, despite my incapability. “L’assouplissant!” he corrected fiercely. I had made the word feminine instead of masculine by mistakenly adding that final e that makes the t before it something you pronounce instead of dropping. In France, all nouns have a gender, even “fabric softener,” which, for no reason I’ll ever fathom, is a boy.
My confidence utterly shaken, but bravely continuing in my obviously imperfect French, I then asked the shopkeeper what we owed him, requesting him to write the sum down in numbers because, as I told him, my husband was in charge of the money and, hélas, did not speak French.
The French sense of the relationship between the sexes, which lags at least a century behind the times compared to the situation in many a developed land, has a certain charm, though it would certainly horrify most urban American women who identify as feminists. The French still echo the traditional belief that the man ranks higher than the woman by birthright; thus she is expected to defer to him. Interestingly, both genders tend to accept this assumption comfortably.
Here’s my favorite example: As I’ve mentioned, the only flat, firm surface of any size in our borrowed apartment was the dining table/desk. When Erik turned over the keys to us, he pointed out a folder in the desk drawer that contained typed instruction sheets covering everything a guest might need to know about the place–in Danish, French, English, and (could it have been?) German versions. Erik was very generous, as I’ve said, and had an international bevy of friends who, like me and my husband, were deeply grateful for a place to stay on a visit to Paris.
Erik assumed, quite reasonably, that his clear, detailed written directions would suffice, but for some reason he emphasized aloud to us the fact that the table could be used for anything, since its surface was impervious. Today I realize he must have meant that, when the versatile piece of furniture was in dining mode, a fairly warm serving dish could be placed upon it without requiring a protective trivet. The surface imitated wood but was clearly in the resilient-plastic family.
One day I had an accident, spilling a large glass of red wine over the only really good dress (white, as fate would have it) I’d brought with me. Acting instantly–after all I was the daughter of a doctor and a seasoned housewife–I gave the garment first aid, beginning with, believe it or not, a rubbing with dampened salt, followed by soaking in cold, soapy water with a dash of bleach, then a thorough rinsing, wringing, and hanging out to dry on a sunlit clothesline. To my astonishment and relief, I had persuaded the stain to disappear.
But then, of course, the dress had to be ironed. A rummage through the kitchen cabinets produced an iron but not an ironing board, which would have taken up far too much space in Erik’s compact dwelling. Using what I thought of as my ingenuity, I spread a large bath towel over the desk, laid my dress on top of it and blithely ironed away. I was about halfway done when my husband came back from a walk, took one look at what I was about, and said in his stern-warning voice, “Are you sure you can do that?”
“Oh, yes,” I replied, with the slightly diminished confidence I was beginning to feel. “Erik said you could do anything on this table.”
My husband relieved me of the iron and yanked dress and bath towel off the table in a single swift pull, looking for all the world like Brando with the tablecloth in Streetcar. Bared, the fake wood of the surface revealed what looked like large patches of sickly gray clouds. Boy, were we in trouble!
We hied ourselves to a nearby hole-in-the-wall shop that seemed to deal with wood finishing and the like. We said bonjour–the mandatory prelude to any French shopping transaction–to the proprietress, who, as I suspected, turned out to know almost no English. So I proceeded to lay the problem before her as best I could in French. Apparently the difficulty was judged to be a grave one because the well-padded woman with cropped hair, work shirt, denim overalls, and the sturdy low boots favored by construction workers called over her co-proprietress, physically and sartorially her clone–they might have been sisters or lovers–for a consultation. I got asked how my accident could have occurred; my answer was duly greeted with incredulity, but eventually with a reasonable promise that something might be done with light sanding and unguents to rehabilitate the furniture.
At this point, my Frenchless husband chimed in, in English, with some details about the incident and queries about the repair (since he would be carrying it out), which he evidently thought might be helpful to all concerned. I broke in to explain the obvious to him and the co-proprietresses: the fact that they had no language in common, but if they’d allow me to be the go-between, I’d be glad to translate. Whereupon the first woman reprimanded me sternly with the French equivalent of “Be quiet, Madame, Monsieur is speaking.”
Long after graduating from college, with its academic approach, I learned Danish, and then I decided really to learn French, not simply the formal language of France’s heavenly literature that dominated our college curriculum: La Chanson de Roland, which made me (a confirmed pacifist) understand why men, especially, found glory in war; Joseph Bédier’s reconstitution of the medieval legend of Tristan and Iseut; the sonnets and odes of Ronsard; the essays of Montaigne; the tragedies of Racine; the comedies of Molière; the letters of Mme. de Sévigné; the fables of La Fontaine; the plays of Marivaux; the children’s tales of the Comtesse de Ségur. . . .
Understand that this is just a random sampling that ignores the moderns and is skewed by personal taste. College French had introduced me to these and other texts in which I’ve reveled ever since. A lab course, to which I had applied myself obsessively, had polished my accent. But what I coveted now was conversation–the simple ability to take my place in those exchanges, some casual and trivial, some deeply intimate, in which people revealed themselves to one another through words. As I had done with Danish, I thought up a handful of ways–homemade and occasionally eccentric–in which this might happen. I’m still working on this method, vastly preferring the organic quality of self-taught means to formal instruction.
I read French children’s books of increasing difficulty, pronouncing the words inside my head. In Manhattan, my home town, if I spot tourists looking puzzled over a map and murmuring worriedly to one another in French, I’ll ask, in French, if I can help them–and do. I haggle in French in the flea markets on trips to Paris. Once a price has finally been agreed upon, sellers, to relax the conversation, often ask me where I’m from. “Guess,” I say with a smile, They never guess America. My biggest compliment so far has been, “Not Paris, but another part of France.”
Renée hasn’t the stamina for house guests anymore, other than her immediate family, but for years, once our friendship had developed into nearly annual stays of a week or two with her and her husband, she and I talked about nothing and everything. When I was in residence, we’d often meet unexpectedly in the long book-lined corridor that ran through her apartment when I returned from hours in the museums. She’d say, “You must be tired. Come and sit down,” and lead me into her bed-sitting room overlooking a terrace filled with plants and birds, which she tended assiduously.
There we’d talk for an hour or more, à batons rompus (at random), as Renée put it, over espresso, an addiction we had in common. Through those conversations–in French until I’d exhausted my linguistic tenacity, in English (which she spoke fluently) when the subject matter outdistanced my vocabulary–we forged a bond that, as far as I’m concerned, will exist until I die.
When I was young, I planned to learn six languages before I died. I had even them picked out: French, ancient Greek, Yiddish (because of my ancestry), Japanese, Italian, and American Sign. Now, many decades and two foreign languages later, I realize how hard it is to acquire another tongue if you can’t live in a heartland where it’s spoken almost exclusively and its sounds fill the air. But I have at least learned that absorbing a language that is not your mother tongue opens worlds of imagination and adventure. It swells the soul.
© 2010 Tobi Tobias