My French Anti-Americanism

Charles and Bob in Versailles 2010I became slightly anti-American during my first three months in France. I dissuaded one of my sisters from visiting me at the apartment where I lived. I talked a friend into postponing a stay. I put off a close but determined friend who was traveling in Europe from stopping by to see me in Paris until I just couldn’t delay him any longer – but I managed to hold him off until the end of my time here (and then I added a week to my stay to make up for his time with me).

I did what I could to remain in French, in France, and to avoid diluting my strengthening knowledge of the language.

I even resented having to travel to Italy during that time for the wedding of a cousin.

Every minute away from France, or perhaps out of immersion in French, meant I might backtrack on my progress.

I thought I’d forget what I’d acquired, that even a small break would lead to my losing everything I’d worked so hard to learn in those all-too brief weeks when my head was swimming with new words, expressions and sensations. I believed, like an idiot, that by sharing I’d be giving away what I’d made my own.

In a way I wanted people to know of my progress without them being present to see it.

It was lovely of my cousin Donald to think of me for his destination wedding. His wife Francesca is Italian, a Roman, but they decided to choose an out-of-the-way spot for their nuptials. They got married in a little town called Pievescola, about 40 kilometers from Siena, at a grand hotel-residence called La Suvera (still inhabited by its marchesa, for what that’s worth, but made more memorable for me by an actual Titian portrait hanging over the door of one of the studies).

My cousin had hired a bus to take us from Rome up to Pievescola, a 3-hour tour. The little town, picturesque as can be, has no public transportation whatsoever, so we were trapped there. That’s the nature of destination weddings: you’re held hostage to the romantic whims of the bride and groom. But as much as I was honored to be asked, I went mainly because of my aunt – my late mother’s sister – who had hoped that I’d attend. And I enjoyed it. Still, it was time away from France – and my studies.

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I spent two and a half days of travel for one-and-a-half days of wedding. I was in the middle of my final five weeks of intensive French courses at Alliance Française – four hours a day, five days a week. The wedding caused me to miss two days, and I didn’t want to miss a third, so I hurried back instead of profiting from being in Italy (and taking advantage of what I’d spent to get there). On the Sunday morning after the wedding, rather than take the rented bus back to Rome, which would have caused me to miss my flight, I took a taxi to Florence, then the fast train to Rome, then the plane up to Milan and then the connecting flight to Paris. A lot of travel. And I was thrilled to be on the cramped and dirty RER train back from the airport to my apartment in the 14th arrondissement.

A few weeks after that, my friend Charles arrived, actually on his way to Italy. He was familiar with Paris, so didn’t expect me to act the guide, but my initial reservations about having anyone other than a Parisian near me during my final weeks there dissolved when I saw him. I’d told some friends of his visit, and they kindly offered to take us around. My friends Renaud and Odette drove us out to Giverny for a day trip to see Monet’s home and garden, with Renaud speaking to Charles in English and me speaking – as best I could at that point – to Odette in French.

It was similar at Versailles, where my friend Gilles, who lives there, on the Boulevard du Roi, showed us around the palace. He spoke English with Charles and French with me. He knows Versailles well, so he gave Charles an expert tour, while I insisted on renting an audio guide, listening to it in French, and contenting myself with understanding perhaps 50% of what was being said about the rooms and the artwork, all in the name of my asinine insistence on protecting linguistic purity.

I still felt a lingering guilt over my sort-of malice aforethought regarding any English-speaking visitors. So I threw Charles a birthday party (the day fell during his stay with me), inviting mainly French friends of mine who I knew spoke English, and even some Americans I’d met in Paris, so he wouldn’t feel out of place. I prepared a variety of dishes and ordered a fancy gâteau from the patisserie down the block. Odette made her special tarte tatin. About 30 people crowded into my apartment, and the evening flew by in a whirl of the two languages.

I realized that my fears of suddenly forgetting everything I’d learned were nonsense, of course, and that my real problem had been my tendency to consider myself unapproachable because I was living abroad, far from the people I knew, or who knew me when I was a snob in only one language.

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