Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Out of the Hammock

When I was a teenager living with my host family in the Loire valley, I could think in French a few weeks into the visit. I listened to French music, pouring over written lyrics, and listened over and over to one particularly beautiful love song, trying to learn all the words. I got my French sister to translate its poetry literally and then figuratively. "Elle as Les Yeux Revolver" is burned into my memory, and I can still recall the meaning of every sad, lovely phrase about a woman so incredible that her very glance destroys the tortured singer: "Elle as le regard qui tue… Elle as tirer la premier… ma touchĂ© et c'est foutou…"

Thematically, I was way out of my depth with that song. I was only 15, and had never killed or even wounded anyone with a glance (aside from, perhaps, my first and fifth grade teachers, both of whom suffered mightily during their years trapped with me.) But the music of that song resonated so powerfully and romantically that summer. I wanted to be grown-up, I wanted to be the kind of woman who inspired that kind of sentiment, and I put the needle back on the start of the song again and again. I loved it so much that I am sure I learned whatever is most authentic in my accent by singing back to that poor wounded crooner.

Yet on the way to feeling fluent, I was frustrated and angry some of the time, and particularly hated when my French father would correct my many errors in pronunciation. I made foolish, childish mistakes, mixing up genders and botching verb tenses left and right, a gauche et a droit. I irritated shop owners and had a terrible time covering my errors when we played cards. During one particularly embarrassing exchange, my French sister was convinced I was cheating when I was convinced I was following the rules. She was sick of me by then, and I was sick of trying so hard. I fled back to my room in tears, wishing I could leave right then. I had no refuge, no private place away from the language I could still not fully understand.

I had a few Agatha Christie mysteries to read, and wrote and mailed letters to my friends. I kept a journal, making a list of 100 differences I perceived between France and what I then knew of America. But I spoke to nobody in English until the last week I was there, when an older and much more sophisticated American teenager drove her host family’s car over to our house. She looked approvingly over the large room and the television I had to myself, and complained in an entitled way about her host family. She shared unnecessary and mean gossip about my French sister. I don’t know why I even believed her, but immediately wished she hadn’t said it. Only later I realized that, although she was older and oh-so-much cooler, I wished she hadn’t even come.

It never occurred to me to turn on the TV she found so impressive. These were the days before cable, and I could find nothing worth watching on the family TV downstairs. (Of course, now that I do have cable, I still find almost nothing.) And watching TV alone just seemed lonely. So for the five weeks, it was just me and my French family, who fed me generously, put up with my immaturity, corrected my mistakes and wished sincerely for me to love their country as much as they did. It was their patience, and my youthful inability to do anything but try my hardest that helped me make the shift into a new tongue.

During that visit, my family and my youthful openness were what allowed me learn. So far this visit, my family and my now hardened perfectionistic tendencies have shielded me from even trying much French. This trip is, after all, Bill’s idea, I tell myself, and he’s the one who spent 100 hours in July in an intensive French language program while I was off at summer camp singing folk songs and canoeing and pretending this trip would never become real. Now, when I’m unsure of myself, I push him ahead to speak for me. Thus I have become a girl who has put herself in a big plastic bubble, and have spoken precisely one successful French sentence outside of a commercial exchange. While I understand people the third time they repeat something for me, as long as they do it slowly and without too much irritation, my spoken French is pretty much right where it was when I left New York: halting at best. Apparently simply breathing French air does little for one’s language skills; one must actually speak, and be spoken to. It is courage, rather than the past imperfect, that I have lost and need to regain.

Today we visited a museum of prehistoric archaeology near the Gorges du Verdon. People and brutish semi-people have lived in this area for nearly a million years, and they left behind enough sharpened arrowheads, cave paintings and carefully buried skeletons to fill a pretty excellent museum. Admission came with headphones in several languages. To hear things in English, you set the headphones on “2.” I could understand the museum’s ticket lady’s directions about the headphones just fine. But when I pulled them off to listen to the museum's narration in French, dissociated from text or from a human face, it sounded just like what Grace described: “Blah blah, le blah blah blah.”

As a classic visual learner, I need to see something to really get it, and have wisely arranged my adult life to be sure that this is always the case. Since that summer of 1985, I have become a person who can do nearly anything I choose. My trick has been choosing mainly things I can be good at fairly quickly. In case you're wondering, I eventually learned to kill with my eyes, and can still do so when I wish; I just choose not to. Instead I use les yeux to conquer things I want to learn.

Thus, I'm unaccustomed to playing in the spheres of my weakness, and would no more listen to language tapes than I would practice my godawful swing at a batting cage before my yearly humiliation at the Fourth of July softball game with Bill's family. When I was a younger woman, I bravely soldiered on through the whole game, but now that I am older (wiser?), I put in a few innings then slink off to lie in the hammock. My team is largely grateful, and it is only the opposing team who misses me. But if I do that with French, I'm looking at an entire year of hammock time.

The girls will have no such choice once school arrives, and this fact is starting to dawn on them. Twice today Abigail sought out other kids. She and Grace have been stuck together so long that they've actually given in and established a serviceably sisterly bond. But Abigail wants to branch out. At the playground near the museum, she eyed a group of brothers. She wisely tried a few of her best climbing and acrobatic tricks to get their attention (she, the kinesthetic learner.) I taught her to say, “Would you like to play tag with me?” and she shyly edged their way. But as it turned out, it was the boys who spoke first, all quickness and confidence. Stricken that she could not understand a word, and paralyzed out of saying her one trusty sentence, she came slinking back to my bench.

Later, outside a cafĂ©, she was drawn to two tanned, skinny little girls wearing bra-sized tops who seemed to have the run of the place. They sat on a swinging bench next to our table and drank their citron sodas in fancy funny glasses. Again Abigail memorized a sentence to try out on them, but when the girls spoke and she did not understand, she crumpled. She assumed that they were laughing at her – and given the way they were flaunting bigger-girl attitude, perhaps they were.

Bill then tried to coordinate Grace’s and Abigail’s strengths so that they could help each other out. “You speak French,” he told Grace, the language whiz, “And you, Abigail, know how to approach people.” The strategy was that Grace would introduce her sister, (“ma soeur,” Grace practiced) and Abigail would actually do the socializing part of things. When it came right down to talking to the girls, it was Grace who chickened out, first wanting a pit stop, so they practiced how to ask for les toilettes. (Bill informed me, after I told them the wrong way to say it, that one always asks for toilettes in the plural.) By the time they returned, the saucy girls had split.

Abigail spent the rest of dinner curled up on my lap. She was not used to anything but social success, and I think she has finally realized that school is going to be hard. Really hard. Grace, more accustomed to orbiting the world in her own sphere, is much less worried about French. To listen to her, those two weeks of French camp gave her all the confidence and basic skills she needs. Mostly just misses her best friend back at home, and just as sadly, her dog. We finished dinner by talking about strategies for helping the kids survive the first few weeks of school. At the end of the meal, Grace laughed at me. “You’re going to be in trouble, Mom,” she said. “You’re going to be the only one not speaking French."

Her comment got under my skin. Mostly because she was right. So this morning, it’s out of the comfy hammock, and off to the market. On my own. I will take my killer eyes and my trusty green shopping bag (shout out to Brooke back home and the sisterhood of the traveling lime-colored, multi-pocketed bag.) I will return with several kilos of over-ripe red peppers, I am sure, or entirely too much of the wrong kind of cheese. I will get my car boxed into the wrong parking space. I’m sure that the merchants will lose patience with me, and do that irritating thing of picking the money out of my hand rather than waiting for me to get the math right.

I am likely being more self-conscious than the situation warrants, for at this time of year everyone’s a tourist, and even the Parisians are a little out of their element. It’s time to get out of my bubble and get my family some green beans, dammit. I will turn off my steady aural diet of hip hop mashups and put on romantic french pop songs for the trip. Today Bill can stay home and sweep and fold the laundry, and I can get out there and forage for food. Perhaps a little necessity, even self-imposed necessity, can be the mother of courage, and give this mother the courage she needs to grow young and unfinished once again.

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