Excuse My French

Excuse My French

An American professor studies abroad.

In early May 2013 I was sharing some wine in the Paris apartment of a young couple, an American man and a French woman, and their 18-month-old daughter. The little girl had toys and books spread across the floor and we were happily watching her pushing things from one pile into another when the man mentioned that he was learning French at the Sorbonne. The course was called “French Language and Civilization” and was designed specifically for foreigners. Life can change in a moment and hearing about the course was one of those moments for me. I knew I had to take that course.

Foreign language credits were required when I was in college. I took French, hated it, and barely managed to get my degree. Later in life—as a kind of karmic punishment, I suppose—I kept finding myself wishing I knew French. I traveled in France extensively and, to my surprise, I felt at home and I began to make efforts to teach myself the language. I wrote two books where important sources were in French, slogging my way through the sources slowly and uncertainly. With time my skills improved slightly and I could speak a little, but I was crawling along and it was frustrating. I tried some extended learning classes, but they weren’t demanding enough to make any progress. The Sorbonne, I assumed, would be plenty demanding.

The only prerequisites for the course were a deposit, enough money for the (surprisingly reasonable) tuition, a student visa, and a copy of my high school diploma. That made me laugh. The high school I went to has been shuttered for more than 20 years. My college diploma would have to suffice. Obtaining a student visa involved filling out numerous forms and a trip to the French consulate in Houston. I had to take along bank statements to show that I had enough income to support myself while I was in France. At the consulate, the interviewer seemed confused that I worked and taught at the University of Texas but was applying for a student visa. “Which are you?” he asked. “A student? A professeur?” But in the end he was nice and expedited things a little. With the visa I could legally stay in France for six months.

All I had to do now was show up at the Sorbonne on Jan. 24, 2014, to enroll for the spring semester. Thomas Staley, then the director of the Harry Ransom Center at the university, where I work as the humanities coordinator, graciously granted me a leave of absence, so nothing at work was tying me down. As a widower, I live alone. My children are grown and independent so there was nothing personally to hold me either. I arrived in Paris the morning of Monday, Jan. 20, 2014. My return ticket was for June 1. On that morning, jet-lagged but propelled by intense, nervous anticipation, as I pulled my two heavy duffel bags down Boulevard de Port Royal looking for the address of the apartment I had rented, June 1 seemed far, far in the future.

The school occupied a newly renovated eight-story building on Boulevard Raspail just south of Boulevard Montparnasse. There were hundreds of students from all around the world, the vast majority in their 20s. By the end of the semester I had made friends with students from Denmark, China, Syria, Russia, Mexico, Georgia, Libya, Spain, Japan, Taiwan, Norway, Germany, Sweden, and Tyler, Texas. Some of them spoke English but in many cases our only common language was French, such as our French was. The first day we took written and oral tests to determine the level of our ability in the language. I was put into B1 (low intermediate), which, I soon realized, was right where I belonged.

I had thought that I was just a step or two away from real facility in French, but I soon realized how much I did not know. For example, the articles—English has three: a, an, and the. But French has 11: le, la, les, un, une, des, du, de la, des (a second time; I said it was complicated), l’, and de l’ (in front of nouns beginning with a vowel). It’s surprisingly difficult—or at least it was for me—to use the correct article consistently, especially since there are times when des, which is plural, becomes de even though the nouns are plural, and to add to the fun we’re already having, le, la, and les can be pronouns as well as articles. All this came early in the semester during one class session, and we moved on quickly.

My grammar class met from noon until 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. In the morning I had breakfast, dressed, and studied for several hours. Around 11 a.m. I ate lunch, usually pâté thickly spread on pieces of baguette and some apple slices, and then left for school around 11:40. There was a bus that stopped in front of my apartment that went straight to Boulevard Raspail and the school, which was a little over a mile away. But unless it was raining, I preferred to walk. The street I lived on, Boulevard de Port Royal, changes its name to Boulevard Montparnasse at Saint Michel, which was about half a mile away. The stretch of Port Royal is pleasant, but workaday. There are hospitals, emergency rooms, and a major fire station. Often as I walked by, the firemen had stretched out their hoses on the sidewalk for some reason or were buzzing incomprehensibly around trucks they had lined up on the street. There was a cafe or two on each side of the street and an excellent farmers market on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday where I bought a lot of my food. For a couple of weeks a gypsy family camped out in a hut they had made of collapsed cardboard boxes. The edges of their mattresses stuck out beneath the cardboard. The family also had a small wooden table and chairs and would be sitting there eating as I walked by. Then one day they had vanished.

At the intersection of Saint Michel where the street becomes Boulevard Montparnasse, the neighborhood changes, too. The famous restaurant La Closerie des Lilas is on this intersection, as well as the statue of Marshal Ney, posed with his drawn sword held aloft. He was “the bravest of the brave” according to Napoleon, and in matters like this I think he’s a good authority. I always tried to take note of them both since Hemingway writes about the restaurant and the statue often in A Moveable Feast. He lived for a while right around the corner in an apartment above a sawmill that is long gone.

From here on, the street was more interesting. There was an excellent, very intellectual bookstore, Tschann, where I spotted a translation of one of Larry McMurtry’s novels under the title Duane est depressif. Beginning at Boulevard Raspail and Montparnasse are the famous restaurants where Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Sartre, Picasso, and many others hung out. Le Dôme faces La Rotonde across Montparnasse on the corner of Boulevard Raspail and La Coupole is just a few steps farther down Montparnasse. They have all been competitors since the ’30s. I liked La Coupole the best. It’s immense but quiet, a good place to have coffee or a kir vin blanc in the afternoon.

From Montparnasse, I turned south down Boulevard Raspail to the school, which was less than a block away. On the corner there was the large newspaper kiosk where I stopped each day to look at the headlines and the magazine covers. The man who ran it was a popular neighborhood character. He had his cronies, route drivers for the newspapers and men who worked nearby. They arrived armed with jokes they told each other under their breath, then burst into laughter. He was also gallant with his elderly female customers. He would come out from behind his counter to kiss them on the cheek and make extravagant comments on their clothes or their hair.

After two hours in the grammar class, I had a phonics class that began at 2:30. This class was humbling. For complicated reasons I was put in a section where the other students’ French was noticeably better than mine. The teacher was a tall, slender, theatrical woman who had the most lovely speaking voice. Hearing her recite a sentence was an aesthetic experience, even though at first I had no idea what she was saying. I sat in terror that she would call on me in class to recite a phonetic exercise such as reciting “sur, soeur, sourd” (on, sister, deaf) with the vowels pronounced correctly. But, the torture and the fear were valuable. As the semester progressed, I could hear and understand more and more. Once, near the end of the semester she began class by asking me how I pronounced my r’s. “Avec espoir, madame,” I said (with hope). It caught her off guard. After a moment’s pause she laughed and the class laughed. But my response was in fact true enough.

There was also an array of conferences we could take on a variety of subjects. Each conference was a weekly two-hour lecture. You could attend as many or as few as you liked. I sampled six or seven of the offered courses and finally settled on French History in Film, French Literature in Film, History of French Art, and Artistic Currents in the 19th Century. These conferences were taught by extraordinary professors who were filled with knowledge and enthusiasm and the two-hour classes seemed to flash by in an instant, although sometimes, when combined with my regular classes, they made for very long days. In total I was in class 23 hours each week.

On the relatively easier days I got in the habit of dropping my books at my apartment after school and setting out on extremely long walks around Paris. I would often be gone for hours. I had no destination and no schedule but would decide on an area to explore and wander around, usually taking photographs to email to my family and to friends. These journeys were always rewarding and I learned my way around. One time, as I had just gotten out on the street, I realized that I had left my map of Paris in my apartment. I paused, annoyed at having to retrace my steps to get the map, and then with a burst of joy I said out loud, “I don’t need it!” and walked on. 

Learning a language is like crossing an immense sea. I had swum out a long way but still had a long way to go…

During the last 10 days, as our final examinations loomed, I was frustrated with my performance. The 11 articles were a constant aggravation as were prepositions, which are very tricky in French, and of course verb conjugations, which you can learn only by memorizing thousands of tiny details. Fortunately, I was pretty good at using the correct verb tense, which helped. I wasn’t bad at pronouns, but nouns—were they masculine or feminine? Often I knew, but often I did not. Learning a language is like crossing an immense sea. I had swum out a long way but still had a long way to go. However, I did have one encouraging moment. In a restaurant at the end of a meal, I handed the waiter a credit card. He had one of the small handheld devices for running the card, which in France often require the cardholder to punch in a code. The waiter asked me in French, “Is there a code?” and I replied in French, “No, there’s not a code.” After this brief exchange was over, I realized that I had not been conscious that we were speaking French. I heard the words he said, understood them, and replied without thinking. I took it as a milestone—a small, perhaps insignificant milestone, but a milestone nonetheless.

The grammar final, which lasted three hours, took place in the Sorbonne’s testing center, an X-shaped building on the far outskirts of the city, which had to be reached by train. It was the most bare-bones building I think I’ve ever been in. Even a prison has more flourishes. Entering the testing room, we had to show a photo ID and then we each had to go to our numbered desk. The room was the size of a basketball court. Rows and rows of small desks and chairs ran its length. No decoration; no amenities. You had to put all your personal effects on the windowsills. Only pens and bottled water were allowed on the desks, except for a few sheets of paper that were already there for taking notes. One row had blue paper, the next rose, the next blue, and so on. It was never said but I assumed this was to prevent passing paper to your neighbor. The woman in charge, a very competent and genial teacher, said that we could not get up without asking, that we could not talk, that we had to write neatly, and that each of the four sections would be timed.

We began with grammar. The first section presented two sentences where everything was plural that we had to transform into singular and two sentences in singular that we had to transfer into plural. This is a little trickier than you might think. It’s not just a matter of adding or subtracting “s.” Six other sections followed, each one testing pronouns or prepositions or verb tenses and so on. Then we had written comprehension (answering questions on a printed paragraph) and oral comprehension (asking questions on a paragraph that had been read to us aloud). The questions were made difficult because they asked for conclusions you could draw from what you had read or—hellishly difficult—from what you had heard. Finally, we had to write a composition of about 300 words about whether electronic devices make daily life easier or harder. I came down firmly on the easier side. At 5 p.m., three hours after we had begun, they collected our papers.

The course was over. I took the train back to the Port Royal station. It was raining as I walked back to my apartment, which only amplified the my-golden-carriage-has-become-a-pumpkin mood I was in. I wasn’t surprised to be feeling glum. I knew I was emotionally attached to the school. It was my reason for being in Paris and now that reason had vanished. Paris is an empress. Very beautiful, very grand, but the cruel truth is that she doesn’t care whether you are there or not. If you are a tourist for a week or so, it’s wonderful because you can drink in the many splendors Paris offers. But living day by day, you have to have a reason to be there or you can find yourself on the outside of a wall enclosing the elegant city where no door is open for you. My reason, my door through the wall, was the school. If I were to be offered a place to stay in Paris for, say, six months, I would immediately and without hesitation say yes. But before I arrived, I would make significant efforts to make connections and to create something useful and rewarding to do. Otherwise, especially on gray, rainy days, Paris can be forbidding.

And my French? It’s not bad, and it’s much better than it was. I’m weakest at speaking. The philosophy of the course was to work on writing and reading. I might have liked a slightly different emphasis, but that’s just not what the school does. Otherwise, the experience was perfect, a dream. And I knew it at the time. Remember this, I kept telling myself. I know I’ll return to Paris but I doubt that it will be or even could be as a college student with no worries or responsibilities except for getting 11 French articles straight in my mind.

Illustration by Carmen Segovia


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