‘We are arrived:’ A first encounter with the French language

Through the sleep-deprived haze of our taxi ride from Marseille to Aix-en-Provence, the last leg of our 46-hour, mechanically marred, twice-delayed journey from frigid, snow-covered Boston to the sun-soaked hillsides of the South of France, I struggle to make sense of what the driver is saying.

He’s affiliated with an association of artisans in Provence, this I know.  He says something about a group of small bakers who’ve joined together using the Internet to compete, something else about a new vintner in Provence at the base of Mt. Sainte-Victoire.

Much of this is a potential vein to mine for my research here, if I can only sort the words, make sense of what he’s saying. But right now, I ‘m barely able to keep my eyeballs from rolling, my eyes from fluttering shut.

I manage to exchange contact information.  Maybe, as he assures me, I am lucky to have taken his cab.  Maybe next time I’ll better understand why.

The fog of a foreign language can be difficult enough on a full night’s sleep.  As I sit here now, at 2:30 a.m., revived by my first four-hour stretch of shut-eye in a day and a half, this fact gnaws at me again.

In five hours Kathy and I will be taking the placement examination at IS, the international language institute in which we’ve enrolled here. For us, it’s a return engagement. And right now I am praying to the language gods to lift me from the purgatory of Level B1, the nether world of beginning intermediate French in which I began – and ended – a three-week stint of study at the school seven years ago.

Meanwhile, at least, nous sommes arrivés, or, as one says literally in French,  “we are arrived.”  Finally.

Learning – make that trying to learn – a second language, first in my 50s and now my 60s, has proven to be a colossally challenging adventure.  Mind you, I can order a dinner or bottle of wine with aplomb. I can figure out the bus fare and exchange pleasantries in the marketplace just fine. But confront me with a friendly taxi driver who launches into a rapid-fire description of that new vineyard, and I’m likely to freeze, a deer in the pick-up’s headlights, a pinch hitter who never gets the bat off his shoulder with two out in the ninth.

Overcoming this will be a big challenge.  (Let me whisper here: Can I?)

French, after all, is a language with enough elisions and glides that conversing in it is a bit like making the moves of the would-be figure skater, who dances on skate tips and launches into a double axel jump that ends painfully in a hard fall. Then it’s time to try again.

This is why I’d love to have a good start, to be handed a small boost after four semesters of study in the States. This is why tomorrow morning – no, it’s this morning now – I will be elated if word trickles down that level B2 awaits me, that I’ve been placed with other  students with a good sense of how the words are formed and the language sounds (even if many in the B1 crowd have stronger grammatical foundations than I.)

Wherever I’m assigned, there’s no turning back now.

For the next four weeks, Kathy and I will be studying French, five days a week.  She’ll study mornings only.  I’ll soon add on afternoon conversation as well.

And when we end?  Will I be able to watch a French movie with some semblance of understanding? Read Le Petit Prince without a dictionary next to me to parse every fifth word?  Call back that friendly cabbie on the telephone?  An honest answer is, “I don’t know.”

Perhaps the pursuit of studying the French language will prove nothing but illusion.  This next month, these next six months, will tell.

This much I know. In this elegant city of broad courtyards and tree-lined avenues, where markets and cafes spill onto the city squares with even the hint of sunshine, I’ll have a good time trying.

For now mes amis, au revoir.  Or is it a bientot?

I’ll let you know after a few hours more sleep.


4 Replies to “‘We are arrived:’ A first encounter with the French language

  1. How I understand this “fog of a foreign language” you describe here. But being able to appreciate your writing today makes me think that, yes, one day we can enjoy sharing, reading, talking in a foreign language with enough comfort and pleasure.
    Thank you for sharing with us this exciting experience and inspire us. I wish to your wife and yourself to live many rich adventures and to enjoy this stay in France !


    1. Sandra,
      I’m still learning this blog or I would have responded sooner. What a lovely note. I should let you know two things. I DID get into B2 (finally). And your help and patience this fall had a lot to do with it. Many thanks.

    1. Je ne suis pas sûr, mais merci. Today, after all, you’ll see that I substituted peppers for poor people in a class discourse about the economy. I guess I’d call that “close but no cigar.” On another matter, we had our first divine pastry today — all whip cream and confectionaire’s sugar. Divine. So happy to be here.

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