Sunday, July 23, 2006


Sometimes I feel like I go through life like a whirling dervish, never stopping long enough to savor one experience before moving on to another. As my friend put it, “You tilt so fully at everything.”

So after some intensive preparation to read Torah and a week of adult chamber music camp, wouldn’t it make sense to just take a few days off from work, put my feet up, and read a book? Or even better, just do nothing? Yes, that would be the right thing to do.

But instead I find myself moving on to French. We’re spending two weeks in Provence with another couple in October and they are relying on me to dust off my once-upon-a-time ability to speak this beautiful language so that we don’t come off as ugly Americans. Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely LOVE speaking French or any foreign language. If I could, I would be in a French immersion program for the next 12 weeks and come out with the fluency I once had.

Unfortunately I still have a job that takes up a huge chunk of my waking hours. So instead I will dust off the book you see above (published in 1965) and get ready to undergo a placement test at the Alliance Francaise (AF) tomorrow. At the Temple Micah auction in the spring, I purchased a year-long membership to the AF, which entitles me to attend classes, check out CDs, and hang out in their offices off of Kalorama Road, sipping wine and speaking French to everyone else in the “salon”. What better way to learn a language?

I have this idea that languages occupy your brain in layers. For me the last layer in was Spanish as I prepared to go to Mexico last summer. So first I must push the Spanish layer down and find the French layer again, knowing that some words will forever float between the two. Then I must plunge into grammar, read poetry, listen to whatever I can muster, and SPEAK, SPEAK, SPEAK. I will make the grossest of errors. But the idea is to make them with confidence and just keep going. Somewhat like playing a Bach sonata.

I just dug out my French notebook from when I was 11. It brings back memories of learning this lilting language before I even understood English grammar well. I learned the subjunctive as a natural part of the language instead of some weird grammatical form that had to be invoked for so many reasons. I found this great poem by Victor Hugo, which we memorized:

A quoi bon entendre
Les oiseaux des bois
L’oiseau le plus tendre
Chante dans ta voix.

Que Dieu montre ou voile
Les astres des cieux
La plus pure etoile
Brille dans tes yeux.

Qu’Avril renouvelle
Le jardin en fleur
La fleur la plus belle
Fleurit dans ton coeur.

Cet oiseau de flamme
Cet astre du jour
Cet fleur de l’ame
S’appelle l’amour.

This is why I am so excited about rediscovering this beautiful language, where all roads lead to LOVE.


Blogger Kate said...

Je parle francais, mais pas bien. My accent: 'c'est horrible!" or so says Georges. :-) I am jealous of your alliance with the French should be wonderful. Maybe I will do that next year when I retire.

5:35 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Kate -- Do it with me now! It's not that far from your office to the Alliance Francaise near Kalorama and Conn Av. I'm going over there tomorrow afternoon to check out the availability of classes. I'll let you know what I find out.

5:39 PM  
Blogger Reya Mellicker said...

Le plus tendre!! What a phrase.

I spoke pretty good French, once again, whenever I tried to speak Italian (in Rome). It's in there, tucked into some dusty corner of my brain, but I could bring it back if I tried.

Barbara with your musical ear, you'll be speaking fluently again in no time.

Did you ever see that Steve Martin sketch where he's writhing on the ground, choking and someone else is saying, "Please! Help this man - he tried to speak French!!" Well ... I think it's funny.

8:46 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Reya -- I hope you're right about language being tucked in there somewhere. I'm counting on that. By the time I see you tomorrow I will have been reminded just how little French I know, but hopefully the AF will have have a game plan for the likes of me. I think this will be a fun project. Maybe I'll watch French movies as part of it. Any attempt at immersion means hearing, speaking, reading. No, I didn't see the Steve Martin sketch, but I certainly hope that's not me in Provence!

9:46 PM  
Blogger Mother of Invention said...

You are certainly ambitious! I took Gr. 13 French and wish I'd taken it in university. It's such a beautiful-sounding language!
I think more will come back to you once you start using it again.

8:47 AM  

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