For those of you who have been waiting for me to get back to living in Paris, this post is a repeat of my first French class and the people I met there. I will follow on posts about the fascinating students who took the class with me.(I am in Arizona at the moment.)
I decided that after 6 months had passed and I wasn’t fluent in French, as I was told I would be, that I should try a French class. What a class it turned out to be. I wish I knew how to write a movie script because I have such a “movie” from my experience in my class. All of these girls had such dramatic stories.
My French class took place in an institute for an Eastern European country where, I can to understand, a classroom was provided for the French class in return for teaching French to expats living in Paris who wished to learn French. There was always at least one person from that country in the class while I was there. Sometimes we had as many as thirteen students in the class. There were never fewer than seven.
I had to take a long subway ride from our apartment to the institute. It was near the Lusembourg Gardens, a very nice part of Paris. As time went by I came to spend many hours walking around the gardens, watching people and taking photographs. It’s a very restful place even with all of the joggers running by.
The first day I walked into the institute I had to find my way down dark stairs, through a little auditorium filled with chairs, also in the dark, into a small, hot classroom. The room had no windows and the whole time I was in the class, no matter what the temperature outside, it was hot. A fan was finally purchased which added some much needed relief. An Australian and I would plant ourselves in front of it dying in the heat, while the young nomenapausal girls would
shiver and pull on sweaters. There was a large rectangular wooden table in the center of the room surrounded by chairs. There were only a few women seated when I entered, but in 10 minutes the chairs were filled.
The teacher rushed in. I was to find out that she always rushed. She appeared to be in her 30’s, was attractive with blond hair, but wore no make-up and was dressed in a black dress with a silver pin on the collar and had on what was stylish in Paris right then, patterned stockings in a gray and white animal skin pattern. She had the quick almost nervous movements of a bird as she opened cabinets, took out books and went through our registration papers. She introduced herself in French. Her name was Angela, and that was all I understood. She spoke nothing but French from the very beginning. We were to be introduced to the immersion method. She wouldn’t let us talk our native language at all. We had to struggle with the little French we knew to answer any questions she might ask.
We took turns introducing ourselves in French and saying where we were from. There were no men in our class. Of the 10 there the first day, 7 of us were married to Frenchmen. I was not only the only American, but also the oldest one there. The countries represented were Russia,
Poland, Australia, the Philippines, Japan, Iran, Iraq, Columbia, Singapore, and, as I said, Eastern Europe. I was surprised that so many of us were married to Frenchmen. I had to wonder if the men would be taking language classes if they were living in the country of their
So, the teacher said, “Blah, blah, blah.”
I once had a coffee cup that had a Far Sides cartoon on it. In one
picture a person was angry at a dog and was saying, “Bad dog, Ginger. Bad dog, Ginger. Shame on you, Ginger.” The second picture showed what Ginger, te dog, actually understood:”Blah, blah, blah, Ginger. Blah, blah, Ginger. Blah, blah, blah, Ginger.” I felt like Ginger.
We looked at each other with incomprehension and I could tell the others felt the same way. The girl from the Philippines understood something Angela had said and when her neighbor turned to her and said, “What did she say?” Angela would say “French only!” Then she had the girl who asked the question repeat what she had asked in French. She did supply some French words when we came to a complete stop but we couldn’t look up any words in our French dictionaries. Angela said, “In this class, I am the dictionary.” Somehow I understood what she was saying when she said that in French.
We had a bad couple of days at the beginning. It was exhausting to keep so focused and try to figure out what Angela was saying. The Australian lady, Victoria, started crying the first day because she felt so out of depth in the class. She said, after class, “I didn’t
understand a single word she said in class. I think I’m going to quit.”She turned up the next day, though, and said her husband told her that even if she only got 10 per cent of what was being said in class, that was good. She was going to try and stick it out.
It didn’t help that when Angela wanted to get our attention as we took turns sitting there in a daze that she would say, “Cuckoo.” This made Victoria cry again as she thought Angela was making fun of her. I think, although I am still not entirely sure, that this was just the
French way of saying, “Yoohoo.” I don’t think she was comparing us to an unintelligent bird.
By the end of the first week we had started to tentatively talk to each other before and after class. We did not speak in French. To my surprise, we were all speaking in English. I would soon find that this was not helping my French, but I was having a much better time in
Paris. One girl’s husband said, “I sure hope you are speaking French with all of the other women after class.” If he only knew.
For the first time in my life I found myself to be the most popular girl in the classroom. In my early school days I was quiet and shy and was always the good one in class, never causing any trouble. I could easily be mortified by just about anything which added to my quietness
as I didn’t want to call any attention to my self. Fast forward these many years later and I discovered that I didn’t mind if I made mistakes, mistakes that often lead to the others in the class laughing. I had no idea I could be so entertaining. I still don’t know if it was my American openiness or just the fact that I truly didn’t care anymore if I made mistakes or looked foolish. I was helped along in my light hearted approach by Victoria who had the same sense of humor.
Victoria, the Australian, and I weren’t allowed to sit next to each other as we might speak in English so we sat across from each other. She had a wonderful infectious laugh and our eyes would meet across the table and she would laugh at me.
Fortunately, Angela also liked my sense of humor. She had a good one herself and occasionally, especially as time passed, we would understand something funny that she said. The first day, and many after that, I brought along a small plastic bottle of diet coke mainly because it was so hot in the classroom. I guess this must be a typical sign that someone is American as I was often used as a metaphor for something American with bottle of diet coke.
One day the subject of saints came up. Mary, the girl from the Philippines, for some reason didn’t understand what a saint was. Why, I don’t know. I thought the Philippines was mainly Catholic. As it all had to be explained in French we were struggling like mad to come up with the words to explain a saint-words like Catholic Church, angels, miracles. Mary still looked clueless so I threw in the name Joan of Arc. I thought everyone had heard of her. No, not Mary. Angela drew a very bad drawing of a stick figure in front of a pole and a fire beneath her. With that drawing I wasn’t surprised Mary still looked puzzled. I had just learned the word for toast, pain grille, so I told Mary that Joan of Arc was turned into pain grillee. Victoria, Angela and I got hysterical, laughing until tears came to our eyes. Angela said I was “morbid”, the French word for sick, I guess. The rest of the class looked at us like we were crazy, if not a little weird. Angela finally told Mary to go home and ask her husband to explain.
Victoria turned out to be our social director, so to speak. She was very good at getting us together for coffee or lunch after class and this was when a small group of us developed a very close relationship. I thought that this must happen in most French classes but was told
from others who had taken other classes that this wasn’t the case. What we developed was very unusual. I think part of our bonding was the fact that we were all isolated by our lack of French and had a lot of experiences in common. We had so much to talk about.
Unfortunately, we didn’t do it in French. I stopped taking the class after a long trip to the States. I’m sure it helped my French some, but I never did become fluent. What I miss most is the girls from the class. Our lives took us all in separate directions and I don’t see them any more. I have some of their phone numbers and want to organize a big party for all of us. It will all be in English, of course.