French Friends, Passing Through

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Meeting other students at French lessons in Paris is like being on a transatlantic cruise: you’re thrown into close proximity with strangers who share a common goal, you become fast friends with them and once you’ve docked you often forget you’ve ever met this or that person.

At Alliance Française in Paris, on the Boulevard Raspail, I met people from Italy, Russia, Croatia, China, Iran, Spain, Canada, Brazil and, of course, the United States. I became friendly with many of them, but have remained friends with only one or two.

One who came and went (despite his professing in a very Mediterranean way his wish for undying amity), was Giusseppe Carrollo, an ophthalmologic surgeon from Palermo, Sicily. He had decided to throw his Italian medical hat into the French ring since it seemed that the need for eye surgeons in Italy had narrowed during its lingering economic crisis.

In order to get his certification to practice on his own in France, Giuseppe needed to achieve a certain level of linguistic competence in French, so he was at Alliance Française to polish up his skills. In the meantime, he worked with a French doctor who served as his mentor at a children’s hospital in the suburbs, conducting eye operations under his supervision, despite Giuseppe’s being fully qualified in Italy.

Giuseppe’s French was not good. Despite his charming accent – and though my ear for accents in French wasn’t very developed at the time I had met Giuseppe, about month or so after my arrival, his accent was unmistakably Italian, almost a caricature of an Italian speaking a foreign language. Giuseppe defaulted to that most un-French – and most Italian – way of speaking in that he pronounced every single syllable. Especially the ends of words, which the French seem to think exist only as a je ne sais quoi for the orthographically inclined, and rarely for actual oral use except in terms of linguistic emergency.

Giuseppe struggled with every aspect of French beyond pronunciation, from subject-verb accordance to masculine-feminine nouns and adjectives (and agreements).

When I saw him before our classes and asked, “Ça va?” Giuseppe would respond, “Je suis heureuse, Robert.”

“Heureux,” I would correct him, half-automatically. “Tu es un homme. Tu es heureux. Micol est heureuse.” Micol was his fiancée, who had relocated with Giuseppe to Paris.

Giuseppe would look at me with a puzzled expression – even after the fifth or sixth such correction on subsequent meetings. Then he’d smile as if he’d discovered yet again some continuing treachery, as if the French language were doing the same thing to him that France itself was: making him miserable.

He didn’t like France. Or the French. Or Paris. (Let’s not even speak about what he considered the abominations of French cuisine.)

Giuseppe had that sense of home that many proud Italians share – Italien über alles – and although he and Micol, who were both nearing 40 (and had been engaged for about a decade) had chosen to relocate from Rome, it was as if their westward march had been forced upon them. Micol had worked in Rome rounding up contestants for Italian reality TV (I used to think that’s why they fled Italy, to escape the horrors of Italian television). In Paris, she served as a sounding-board or maybe a corrective for the tides of Giuseppe’s opinions and moods.

Giuseppe was, however, all-welcoming when we were in our courses together at Alliance Française. He smiled benignantly at the teachers there who strove to correct his phonetics, although both he – and they – knew that it was fruitless.

Outside of class, we socialized. When you know no one, you make do with whom you meet. We found some surprisingly decent Italian restaurants where the three of us dined. He invited me to join a group of foreign friends – or soon-to-be-forgotten acquaintances – at a café in the 7th arrondissement on Wednesday nights where we practiced our French conversational incompetence with each other. He invited me over for some of Micol’s lasagna (excellent) at their miniscule apartment. He urged me to visit him and Micol at his family house in Palermo.

He was fun to be around, and when he ventured onto subjects other than les Français maudits – the accursed French – he would become expansive. His favorite subjects were Sicily, America (he had cousins on Long Island) and the television crime series, “Inspector Montalbano,” a long-running adaptation of popular Italian mystery novels by Andrea Camilleri, and starring the Roman actor Luca Zingaretti.

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Although he expounded on certain examples of Italian cultural and geographic supremacy, Giuseppe did try to acclimate himself to France, up to a point. He and Micol occasionally went to the theater (he said he could understand generally what was being said, much to his – and my – surprise), they attended free classical concerts in Bois de Boulogne and he and Micol toured chateaux in the region around Paris. But France never took with him. He resisted, and his longing for home prevented him from making a home where he had chosen to find himself.

I couldn’t see myself in Giuseppe’s personal journey, however, although I sympathized with his quest for betterment. Giuseppe had fully uprooted himself to try to make it abroad – or a neighboring country – whereas I was able to work as a writer no matter where I was (as long as I had internet access). So I was more of a floating, temporary expat searching for a kind of enlightenment rather than someone driven by economic duress to seek his fortune in another country, and resenting it.

We continued to see each other for a bit after each of us had stopped attending courses at Alliance Française. Giuseppe had finally obtained his required French-language certification, and my French had become good enough so that I could continue on my own in conversing with my growing circle of French friends. But little by little Giuseppe stopped responding to emails and invitations to get together. I figured he had moved on.

You never know why someone decides you’re not worth the trouble of pursuing a friendship. Something that had clicked no longer does, or you no longer serve a purpose that you had upon first become acquainted with this person. Or you find that you aren’t as compatible as you’d believed. I realized that I had permitted myself to become more open to outside influence, as it were, and that for me life was better if I allowed change into it, however uncomfortable I might be initially, even if that included trying to strike up friendships with people who would later strike down those incipient friendships. Giuseppe wanted to be back in Italy, regardless of whom he’d met in France.

Giuseppe and Micol eventually decided to return to Rome – a surgeon’s position had apparently opened up for him there and Micol had once told me that she could easily find work in Italy corralling hapless contestants who hungered for fleeting TV fame. And after I sent Giuseppe and Micol a holiday card at his new address, wishing him the best in his reborn Roman life, he sent a card back wishing me, in English, a Merry Christmas, and adding in French, “Je déteste la France!”

His French had gotten better, at least.

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