My fascination with all things French began at an early age, upon learning the origin of my ancestors. I named my new puppy, a French poodle, Pierre François Dubois. I picked out swirly French Provincial style drawer pulls for the dresser my dad refinished for me when I claimed the bedroom my older brothers vacated. Pierre chewed every corner he could dig his razor-like bourgeois canines into.
My first opportunity to learn my “native tongue” was in seventh grade, choosing French for my foreign language elective. My teacher, Madame Lynch, was a European transplant. Also a tyrant, she confiscated my “Ripley’s Believe it or Not” paperback the morning she caught me reading it in class. She promised to return it at the end of the school year. On the last day of school, when I approached her to get it back, she claimed she couldn’t find it. Dictator.
Despite her iron-fisted disciplinary methods, she was generous with praise when deserved. One day, each student took a turn reading aloud a passage from our textbook. When I finished reading, she announced that my pronunciation was exceptional. In fact, she said, I could pass as a native speaker. My thirteen-year-old self interpreted that to mean I was a natural, had mastered the basics, and no longer needed to study. My B+ plummeted to a D the next semester. Nonetheless, her words stuck with me, and I never lost my affection for la langue française.
I continued my studies through middle school and into high school. After graduation, I went to work full time, married young and had a child. My plate full, further pursuit of foreign language studies was put on hold for a few decades.
In my 50s, I decided to take a class at the local community college. After two semesters, I found that while I learned to parle un petit peu (speak a little bit), je ne comprenais pas trés bien (I didn’t understand very well). But I refused to give up.
I learned about a French language school in Berkeley near where I worked, that held evening classes en français in a late 1800s era Victorian house. I climbed the stairs, opened the door and was greeted by a woman about my age with, Bienvenue. She might as well have been speaking Portuguese. Thank goodness her sweeping hand gesture interpreted her invitation for me to enter.
A bit intimidated, but assuming I was expected to speak French, I boldly announced, je parle un peu de français (I speak a little French), mais, je ne comprends pas trés bien.
“Then let’s speak English,” she said.
The first evening of class, I settled into a seat at a long table and watched the other students file in. The instructor, a young pale, doughy fellow with unruly chocolat-colored hair, stood at one end of the room next to a blackboard, thumbing through his notes. Once we had all gathered, he welcomed us and introduced himself in a thick, sensuous accent.
That was all it took. I was smitten. My head filled with scenes of the two of us strolling along the Champs Élysées, hand in hand, giggling and speaking perfect français in hushed tones.
In one session, Monsieur Oolala taught us a more informal way to say a common phrase.
I spoke up. “So if we say it that way, they won’t know we’re American.”
“No, they’ll know you’re American because of your accent.”
Ouch. What about my perfect pronunciation? Philistine. So much for my Parisian promenade.
I worked with a couple of tutors after that, but never got the hang of understanding more than a word or two in a conversation. Still I couldn’t shake the desire to attempt to converse en français. What a thrill to be understood in a foreign language. Whenever I hear a French speaker, in Safeway or at the mall, I’m tempted to approach them with my marginal grasp of the language.
At the city senior center recently, I noticed a new volunteer working the front counter. I heard her accent, then noticed her name plate: Nicole Coultier.
I couldn’t resist trying out a line or two. Bonjour. Je m’appelle Camille DeFer. J’aime la langue française. (My name is Camille DeFer. I love the French language).
Ah, vous parlez français. (You speak French).
Un petit peu. (A little bit), I replied.
Wait. Did I just have a conversation en français? At last, I had exchanged pleasantries with a real French-speaking person. I floated like un papillon (butterfly) the rest of the day.
Vacationing in Italy a few years back, I overheard Collette, then peut être behind me and knew I was in the company of a group of French tourists. This was my chance to try out my pigeon French on some authentic native speakers. I turned to face a distinguished looking elderly gentleman.
Pardonez-moi, I said, my heart pounding. Je m’appelle Camille. J’aime la langue française.
The gentleman smiled and, predictably, rattled off an unintelligible reply.
Je suis désolé (I’m sorry), I replied. Je ne comprends pas trés bien.
The gentleman nodded, then turned to my husband and smiled. “Your wife’s French is very good.”
Finally, validation of my superior command of the language. I pulled back my shoulders, and returned his smile. “Merci beaucoup.”