Finding Fortune in French

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Jean de La Bruyère, the 17th-century French philosopher and moralist, was also, naturally, a sort of cynic. “Il faut avoir trente ans pour songer à sa fortune,” he wrote. “Elle n’est pas faite à cinquante; l’on bâtit dans la vieillesse et l’on meurt quand on est aux peintres et aux vitriers.”

Or, “A man is thirty years old before he thinks of making his fortune, but it’s not completed at fifty; he begins to build in his old age, and dies by the time his house is in a condition to be painted and glazed.”

La Bruyère, however, was dead at 50.

I was in my 50s when I began to live in France.

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Jean de La Bruyère, French philosopher-moralist.

I had no plans, and certainly hadn’t made a fortune up to then. My goal wasn’t to crack the code of living in France or of French society, unlike many Americans whose memoirs track the progress of their entrée into the closed circles of the rich and famous, as if name-dropping makes you as important or interesting as those you’ve striven to encounter.

I wanted to meet noteworthy people, certainly, whether or not they were celebrated. I wasn’t simply interested in learning where to find the perfect sole meunière, or to tell visitors what boulangerie had the finest baguette in town (and I’ve yet to meet the desperate tourist who goes out of his way to find one, though I’m sure they exist). Such knowledge – personal, up for dispute, quickly out of date and immediately forgotten – comes in handy when you think you can impress the yokels back home.

That wasn’t my goal, at least I thought it wasn’t, but I didn’t know what my goal was in heading to France, other than to change where I was without falling into a routine in another culture. I wanted to maintain a tourist’s wonder without being a tourist. In a way I wanted to impress the yokels back home but not turn into what I feared becoming: someone with knowledge and without humility, the know-it-all who protects what has become his city from the possessiveness of others who experience it with something like the same fervor.

When I decided to immerse myself in French culture I was perhaps at a crossroads in life. But I’d always been at a crossroads or on the cusp of something that would lead me to being on the cusp of something else. I lived the eternal dissatisfaction of an uncertain mind (which is perhaps why La Bruyère appeals to me).

I was certainly not alone in looking elsewhere for a sense of direction. Although I realized that I was not the first to choose Paris as a way of discovering more of the world, and oneself, I quickly met a few Frenchmen who’d chosen New York to shake themselves up.

On Easter Monday evening, after my first weekend in Paris, I treated myself to dinner at Le Zeyer, a busy brasserie on the crossroads near the Alésia metro, the metro stop right after Mouton-Duvernet, the one closest to my apartment at the time.

Franck, my waiter, had lived in New York for nine years, and spoke excellent English. He indulged my desire to practice French, even though he could see from the phrasebooks I tried not to glance at that I was a newcomer both to Paris and to French.

Like many Europeans, he got a head start on English by watching American movies, listening to American pop, and sitting in front of the television absorbing American series. English is easier that way, he said to me: It’s the language of the world, culturally and business-wise, and so everyone gets it.

He found English difficult enough to become comfortable with but, with the pride of a someone who believes that his language is the only one capable of subtlety, wit or profundity, he told me that French is on the whole much more difficult to master.

But his life in New York – where he’d also worked as a waiter – helped him in his profession back in France, where English – despite its lack of said subtlety, etc. – was essential for advancement. He liked what he did, which included waiting on Americans and others who weren’t fortunate enough to have been born speaking French. Franck did the work so we Americans wouldn’t have to when ordering food abroad.

I explained, in my hesitant way, that I wanted to know more about his country, his language and his – meaning his and his countrymen’s – way of life. I couldn’t say more because I didn’t know at the time what I really wanted other than to change. But I’d found that this was often enough to make people look at me twice.

“You know,” he said, “you’re an American. You don’t have to be here.” At which he took my order for rognons de veau – veal kidneys – which I’d decided to try for the first time ever (and my pronunciation of which Franck corrected in the kindest way possible).

Other people had said the same thing to me there, even after just a few days in Paris, as if being a New Yorker gave you license to stagnate in imperious provincialism.

Perhaps that was my goal, although I hadn’t yet articulated it. Doing the work myself so others wouldn’t have to do it for me.

4 thoughts on “Finding Fortune in French

  1. Hello conscientious traveler . I certainly don’t think French is “the only one capable of subtlety, wit or profundity” but I can tell for sure that it is more difficult than English . I learnt a few languages, none perfectly of course but enough to hold meaningful night long conversations with a local mate or two, and to be true English is the most skeletal “tool of communication” I ever met . On syntax, conjugation and grammar point of views I mean . Speaking English reminds me when we used to send telegrams in French .
    Until now, the most complex and difficult language I learnt is old Greek, and it seems that on the question of subtlety and profundity old Greek can easily compete with French, German, Russian or maybe Sanskrit .
    Did you get the book “Les Copains” ? I’d like to hear about your appreciation . And thank you for having corrected my wrong spelling of Jules “Romains” . Personally I took a great pleasure reading “Les Caractères” of La Bruyère but IMO the greatest writer of French XVIIth century is Jean de la Fontaine, the master of “fables” . Molière is great about society and characters, Boileau is a language master in his way, but as a pure master of the language to me La Fontaine is unequaled . I don’t know if you can fully enjoy it, it’s old French, highy literary, and as for any language if you didn’t discover it through your life as a kid, a teen, a greedy reader of all kinds, it may be impossible to fully measure the goldsmith way he chisels the language . Anyway, take care .

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  2. Thank you for your comments; I appreciate what you have to say. I certainly take great delight in my own language, and I wouldn’t call the language of Shakespeare, Dickens, Keats, Joyce, Melville or Dickinson as the equivalent of the language of a telegram. I take pains when I write simply to express the point of view of what others say about their language, and what I myself find it in acquiring it, since you can truly only appreciate a language and its subtleties and expressiveness if you grew up in it. That said, two French friends of mine, one a teacher of French linguistics at the Sorbonne, and the other a professor of literature at Caen, both tell me they marvel at the richness, expressiveness and, indeed, the subtlety, of English. I certainly haven’t found French more difficult than English — in my opinion English is easy to acquire but quite hard to master — but neither would I criticize French since French isn’t the language with which I grew up. I’m fascinated at how the French feel the need to protect and preserve their language. And I’ve read and do read literary French — such as La Princesse de Clèves of Madame de La Fayette, and I’ve read Proust and Maupassant and Balzac and Zola in French, so I think I’ll be able to get through Les Copains, although I have not yet received it. But every book is a journey, and with every novel that I read in French, I learn more about the French language’s variety of expression. That said, I’ll never truly be able to appreciate its subtleties since I only began to learn it in my 50s, but neither will I say that any one language is better than any other, since I can’t truly compare them all and it would be presumptuous of me to assume that I know something more than a native speaker.

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  3. For sure Shakespeare or Keats are writers . I was refering to modern English . As Anglophones don’t protect their language and just want it to be a pragmatic tool it seems along centuries English lost many elements through time ( 2nd singular person, subjunctive, etc.) and is still losing some . The absence of prepositions in many situations, the quasi absence of any conjugation that make people seemingly only use the infinitive form ( like what foreigners do when beginning ) make English look like telegraphic language if we translate it word for word in French . And the fact that there are no genders prevents any agreement but what I found the most surprising in my young age was that there was no agreement at plural either for adjectives . Adjectives which always are before nouns, just like “have” is the only auxiliary for compound tenses . Not to mention the very little choice among demonstrative or relative pronouns, compared to all the elaborate languages I know . And take the fact that you equally use “what” to translate ‘que” in ” Je veux que tu viennes” and “ce que” in “Dis-moi ce que tu veux”, abolishing the difference between a conjunctive and a relative subordinate clause .This is an example of what I meant about skeletal syntax .
    In past centuries I guess what I say was irrelevant but nowadays, as there is no official body to protect the integrity of what used to be a language …

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  4. PS Forget my dumb example about “what” . More accurate with ” Que veux-tu?”-What do you want and ” Dis-moi ce que tu veux”-Tell me what you want . No need for the compulsory presence of an antecedent (here:ce) in English .

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