Mon Dieu! My French tutor has left me.

Yes, I know what you’re thinking: you live in the Netherlands and you have a French tutor? I do. Well…I did. And finding him was one of the first things I did when I arrived here. I invested so much into learning French two years ago that I want to be sure to keep it up. Plus, everyone in Amsterdam speaks at least three languages fluently, which usually leaves me feeling like the dumb, mono-lingual American. Hence, the French tutor.

Alors, my tutor is moving back to France next month to start a PhD program. And I am left, once again, on my own. Back to misusing the subjunctive and failing to remember the proper concordance des temps. This surprise departure of my tutor has literally come on the eve of a trip to Paris…we leave tomorrow for a weekend visit, our first since we moved to Europe. I was hoping one more lesson would get my confidence up, and help me remember all those marvelous little phrases that make social interactions in France – asking for directions, ordering in a restaurant – more pleasant. (Readers from the Institut de Francais…where is Julian when I need him most??)

So I send my apologies in advance to the good, language-proud people of Paris. I’m coming, and I’m speaking French. I’m not going to let myself be embarrassed by my mistakes. I’m not going to be intimidated if you roll your eyes or start to switch to English. I will persist. Because I love your language, and the ferocity-bordering-on-arrogance with which you defend and promote it. You think it’s worth protecting. I think it’s worth learning. Let’s help each other out. À bientôt!



Mother tongue

I live in a place where I don’t speak the language, at least not beyond the basics. I live comfortably and easily here because almost everyone speaks English. Still, as the months pass, I’m increasingly aware of my deficiencies in Dutch. The introductory class we took back in April is a distant memory, so I decided that it was time to get back into some kind of language study. A free 3-week on-line class seemed like the right way to ease back into things. And then, in the middle of week two, I also resumed weekly French lessons with a tutor, after a break of about 8 months. Two foreign languages. Same time.

I had originally stopped my French lessons when I started the Dutch class, convinced that if I attempted to study two languages simultaneously, my head would explode. This time around, I had a different theory. I thought that learning two languages night somehow crack wide open the language center in my brain, and rules and grammar and structure would suddenly all make sense. In short, I hoped that my head would explode.


I am fascinated by bilingual or multilingual people. I always want to know when and why people code-switch, or what language they use at home, or what language they dream in. In my eyes, you polyglots basically have super powers. (You’re smarter than the rest of us! You could delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease!)

In reality, I know that language acquisition is actually something that mere mortals can do. It’s likely that my French will never be fluent or un-accented, since I’ve acquired it as an adult. But it can be good. It can certainly be better, if I’m willing to put in the work.

And the other truth is that we’re all multilingual, even within the confines of our mother tongue.

If you speak English, if you have ever been to a ballet or seen an alligator. If you’ve ever talked about your angst or ennui, played a guitar, smoked marijuana, sipped champagne on a yacht or studied algebra in the boondocks, you have already been speaking the language of the other.

-Ana Menéndez, “Are We Different People in Different Languages?”

My current language-learning hero is writer Lydia Davis. While I have yet to read her work, I read an interview in which she discusses both the reasoning and the process of teaching herself Norwegian. Davis says:

“It all started with a resolution. After my books started coming out in various countries, I made a decision: Any language or culture that translates my work, I want to repay by translating something from that language into English, no matter how small. It might end up being just one poem or one story, but I would always translate something in return.”

Imagine: to invest the time and labor of teaching oneself another language – and doing so well enough to make a faithful translation –  as a way to return the gift of your own translator. The curiosity, respect, and playfulness that Davis brings to her learning is inspiring. She is a language detective, a decoder. And she is a reminder to me of the rich rewards that come from study and exploration of a language not (yet) our own.

List-makers of the world, this one’s for you

I love making lists. I have been known to make lists of lists, especially around the holidays (Christmas card list, Hanukkah list, gift list, cookie-baking list, and on and on). There is something very satisfying about crossing things off and saying, “There. That is done. What is next?”

At my workplace we use a special shorthand for these to-dos, referring to them as “bwat lists”, from the Haitian Creole word bwat, or box. Think you’re finished with a task? Not until you send a bwat-check to whoever asked you to do the task in the first place.

As a reader, however, lists can be a bit annoying. I get pretty cranky when I turn to a favorite columnist and see that they’ve offered up a list of “random thoughts”. It’s always a bit insulting, like they’re either being clever, or they just can’t be bothered to think more completely or critically about an idea. If you don’t have enough to say to write a whole column about it, maybe it’s not that good of an idea in the first place?

But here I am, a week out from my return to work, and I realize that there are a number of things that I’d like to share, but I won’t have the time to flesh them out fully.  And, I’m rationalizing to myself, many august publications rely on lists to convey information. I mean, Harper’s does it, so it can’t be that bad, right? (We’re going to choose to ignore the fact that far less august publications also publish lists, in the form of those terrible “What’s Hot/What’s Not” and “In/Out” lists that give me a blip of anxiety – ack! kitten heels are out and wedges are in? – until I remember that I don’t actually care.)

So, with apologies to the list-haters, here are (in no particular order) a few things that don’t quite merit a post of their own, but still, in my mind, deserve a little bit of my blog space:

– You can’t make over-generalized statements about the entire population of a country. There are over 65 MILLION French people and they are not all rude. When I got home from France I heard things like, “France is wonderful, except for the French!”  Everyone I met there, from waiters to taxi drivers to hotel owners, was friendly, polite, and helpful. And I’m from Long Island, so I know a thing or two about rude.

– Regardless of what I just said about over-generalizing, I’m convinced that everyone from New Zealand is completely crazy.

– The current crop of French pop songs includes a ridiculous – perhaps even obscenely high – number of male/female duets.

– If you’re a AAA member, you can renew your driver’s license at one of the AAA branch offices, without having to go to the Department of Motor Vehicles! You can also buy movie tickets, amusement park tickets, and book travel. It is fascinating to me that with all of the on-line options, there are still people who physically go to a AAA office to book flights.

– I should never attempt to read David Foster Wallace after 10:30pm. Those evening hours are meant for travel magazines and fluffy historical fiction.

– Having a lane to yourself at a public swimming pools is one of life’s greater pleasures.

– Solo travel is good for the soul. It forces you to take responsibility for yourself, and reminds you what you’re capable of.

– Concord, MA, might be my favorite place to ride my bike. Seen on my ride yesterday: horses, goats, a cranberry bog, farms, polite (ok, tolerant) drivers, friendly Concordians, rolling hills, chipmunks, Orchard House. NOT seen on my ride: traffic lights.

– Speaking of biking…triathlons are awesome.  What I’m most proud of is that over the past several years, I’ve recruited at least 8 women, by my count, to the world of triathlons. It’s been so much fun to help them prepare and to watch them realize how strong and able they are. If you live in the Massachusetts area and are thinking about doing a triathlon, I recommend any race organized by Max Performance. Also: stop thinking, and go do it.

– There’s no substitute for putting yourself out there. No one is going to knock on my door and offer to speak French with me for a few hours. (Although, as it turns out, I have a Moroccan neighbor, so that could happen…) It is awkward and scary to attempt to meet new people, especially as an adult, but the rewards are great. I’ve met some lovely folks this summer, and continued to improve my French thanks to them. That only happened because I reached out, took a chance, and showed up.

– One of the many gifts of my sabbatical was that it allowed me to slow down. I did less, but I enjoyed more. I was deliberate and a bit more thoughtful about how I spent my time and my energies. Along with my time for exercise, this is what I’m most afraid of losing when I return to work.

– Nothing – no social network, no text messages, no occasional greeting cards – can take the place of being face to face with friends and people you love. Of course, we know this already (and if we didn’t, we now have studies to prove it), and our lives don’t always lend themselves to personal contact. But we have to prioritize it, and try to order our lives in a way that encourages it, if we want those relationships to grow and nourish us.

If you’ve made it this far, thanks for indulging my list-making and hanging in to the bitter end. You can now bwat-check “Read Kathryn’s blog”. What’s next?


Cinq heures de français

Oui, that’s five hours of French, for my English-only readers.  That was my Friday, and it was great!  Yesterday marked two weeks to the day since the end of my course at the Institut, and while I’ve been reading, watching movies, and doing my grammar exercises, there’s no substitute for speaking French. I was fortunate to find some willing Francophones to spend time chatting with me (and correcting me!).

Victim #1 is a lovely Swiss woman who I met through mutual friends.  I see her and her husband every year at our friends’ 4th of July party, and this year, since I had just returned from France, she offered to meet up for some conversation. We spent a lovely afternoon at the Museum of Fine Arts, talking about the Samurai exhibit, her travels in Asia, my experience in France, and her sweet 3-month old son, who joined us for the afternoon.

(For Boston-area folks, the Highland Street Foundation is providing Free Fun Fridays all summer, with free admission to 6 different museums and cultural centers throughout Massachusetts every week.  Check out the schedule and go!)

After the MFA, it was on to Cambridge, to meet an Iranian-Canadian MIT student who I had found on Conversation Exchange. I recommend checking out the site to find conversation partners near you. You can meet in person or via Skype.  If you’re feeling retro, or just need to work on your writing skills, you can even find a pen-pal and write letters.  It’s a global site, it’s free, and it’s easy to set up a profile, so you’ve got no excuse.

Both of my conversation partners were helpful, patient, and very supportive. My most frequent error (and my fellow Institut-goers will sympathize) was continuing to “vouvoyez” after I should have started to “tutoyer”.  I chalk that up to the Institut’s insistence that we use only the “vous” form. And better to be too formal than to run the risk of insulting someone by being too familiar, right?

There were a few of those deer-in-headlight moments where I had to puzzle out what had been said and respond appropriately, but those moments keep me on my toes and keep my listening skills sharp. Overall, it was great to hear and speak French again, and for a sustained amount of time. Like I said, there’s no substitute for live and spontaneous conversation. And it’s easier to find than you might think, so get out there and keep talking!

Welcome home

This is the actual conversation I had with the Very Serious Border Control Agent at Logan Airport on Sunday night:

VSBCA: Where are you coming from?

Me: I just arrived on a flight from London but I’ve been in France for a month.

VSBCA: What were you doing in France?

Me: I was completing an intensive language immersion program.

VSBCA: The French language?

And…with that, I was back in the USA!  I didn’t want to spend my night in a windowless interrogation room, so I thought it best NOT to offer a snarky response about how I was actually learning Mandarin but I just couldn’t resist the lure of the south of France in the summer.

It's not Nice, but it's not without its charms...

It’s not Nice, but it’s not without its charms…

The past few days have been a bit of a whirlwind – some dear friends are staying with us and they arrived in Boston only a few hours before I did.  I unpacked quickly and still have a lot of little things to clean up.  Laundry has been done, photos organized and shared.  I’m keeping my tourist mentality and putting it to use closer to home, enjoying some relaxing time in downtown Boston.

The challenge for me now is the same one I’ve faced many times before: how do I integrate what I’ve learned and what I experienced into my “normal” life?  If past performance is any indicator, this is not something at which I excel.  I have a tendency to hold on to the memory of an experience, and to attempt to relive it, or memorialize it.

As I wrote that, I heard the voice of a high school theology teacher, reminding us that, “If something doesn’t grow, it dies”.  That’s the trick here; twofold, in this case.  First, there is the very practical challenge of continuing to develop my French skills.  I feel like I have good plans in place, but I need to be aggressive in carrying them out, and dedicate time for studying.  (It helps that it’s Tour de France time; I’ve been listening to race updates and commentary en français thanks to the RTL Tour podcasts.)

The other challenge is to continue to build the relationships that I was so fortunate to make while in Villefranche. The intensity of the program and the shared experience lends itself to fast friendships, but I know that there were more lasting bonds created.  That said, we all know firsthand how our best intentions fall away in the face of the rush and busyness of everyday life.  So much as I’ll do with my studying, I will be intentional in continuing to grow these friendships.

I know it’s only July, but I can’t help but think of a favorite poem that I re-read at the start of each new year. “…I’m going to stay alert, reach out…I’m going to practice every day…”.  Oh, just go read the whole thing.  I promise it’s worth the click.

Learning to read. Again.

I started reading at a very young age.  In elementary school, I would go to the library and pick out books that the librarian thought were too difficult for someone my age.  From time to time she would ask me to read the first few paragraphs to prove that I could actually read and comprehend the text.  I was a painfully shy child and being asked to read aloud, even just to the librarian, was difficult.

On at least one occasion, (although it may have happened more frequently) my sister was in the school library at the same time. I’ve never known if she just happened to be there or if she had been asked to go.  But I remember her coming over to me, just as I was about to cry with anger and embarrassment and frustration, and saying, “Katie, just read me a little bit, like you do at home.”  Reading to my big sister was something I could easily do, so I did, and proved to the librarian’s satisfaction that I could handle books meant for older kids.

I thought of this childhood experience yesterday as I stood in a bookstore in Nice, surrounded by French books.  A few of us had made the pilgrimage to FNAC, a sort of Best Buy-meets-Barnes and Noble-meets-Starbucks in the center of the city.  (Although, in the US at least, Barnes and Noble and Starbucks have already met…)  Some people had reading lists provided by one of the instructors, but I was just wandering around, picking up whatever looked interesting.  I spent most of my time in the Young Adult section, as I figured that about matched up with my ability.  Thankfully, no one asked me to read anything aloud, but I did test myself: if I could read the blurb on the back and the first few paragraphs, it was a keeper.

Last night I started reading one of the YA novels I bought.  Miracle of miracles, I could read it!  And I mean really read it, without having to first translate every word into English in my head.  I recognized some idiomatic expressions I had learned, and I could identify le gérondif, something I didn’t know existed as of a few days ago.

I don’t remember the experience of learning to read the first time; of how or when the shapes on the page resolved themselves into words, and those words took on meaning.  But sitting on my couch last night in this little apartment, it happened again.  And this time I was paying attention.  And will remember.