My friend Daniel – who threw the housewarming where I began to widen my tiny circle of French friends – is an inclusive person. Everyone he knew seemed to be there.
I’d first met Daniel a few years earlier, thanks to a lunch at Edmund White’s, with whom I was staying during one memorable vacation a few years earlier at a farmhouse he’d rented just outside of Saint-Remy de Provence, near Arles. Daniel, like so many of his countrymen, is a philosopher. In the U.S., everyone might be a critic, but in France, everyone’s a philosopher. It must be all the hard water from the country’s wide limestone deposits, a calcium buildup that leads to heady pondering of the world’s problems.
Daniel is a great admirer of Jean Genet and Edmund White had written a much-lauded biography of Genet. Daniel came by – he’d actually invited himself over, because pourquoi pas? – for a chat about their shared interest, and as it happens he and I got to know each other.
Anyway, Daniel’s guests at his housewarming included neighbors from his old apartment in the 5th arrondissement – an apartment he was now renting to tourists as a means of additional income – as well as the real estate agent who’d found this place for him. Also present were friends with whom he taught or studied Aikido, a martial art that incorporates philosophical beliefs (of course), his shrink and his shrink’s wife (there must be something philosophical in having your psychologist over for cocktails) and several of Daniel’s friends from his childhood in Nice.
Instead of turning me loose on a pack of feral French speakers, Daniel wisely introduced me to two sympathetic ex-neighbors of his from the 5th arrondissement, who’d also recently bought an apartment in the 13th: Renaud, newly retired as an editor at a publishing house, and his wife Odette, also retired. Both now worked as translators – he from English, she from Russian. And both greeted me as if I were a breath of fresh air among the smoky Parisians.
Renaud speaks excellent English, with a British-French accent (he’d spent some time in England), and helped me put together a few sentences using my vocabulary of “je suis” and little else. He saw that I preferred to stumble in French rather than skip in English, and kindly waited as I searched my data banks for one of the few words I could remember after my three weeks of conversation courses at Alliance Française.
He’d suggest a word, as if he knew where I was heading (as if we were an old couple who could finish each other’s sentences), and repeated it so that it might stick with me. Odette did the same. She doesn’t speak English, but she’s a formidable linguist in her own right, and managed to steer me toward some basic French comprehension, whereby all three of us could understand the small talk that makes up even a French cocktail party thrown by a philosopher-martial artist. The small talk that might lead to something deeper – something even philosophical!
This willingness was something I found, and continue to find, in France: patience for those of us who are making our way in the French language.
I’ve heard people tell me that once they start mangling French – at a restaurant or boutique – the waiter or salesperson jumps into English, either out of politeness or horror.
But this didn’t happen with me, or when it did, which was not often, I asked that I be allowed to continue in my French, however bad. This usually prompted a surprised gratitude – the French are fiercely proud of their language – that someone, especially an American – would try to acquire “la langue de Molière,” as they often referred to their mother tongue.
Perhaps because I never assumed that anyone I spoke with understood “la langue de Shakespeare,” and I pushed ahead regardless of my incoherence – or their incomprehension – I managed to open a door that many Americans find shut, that of making friends with the French.