Conversation Classes in France

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Jean-Robert would meet Georgia and me at either her apartment or mine, when we lived near each other in the 14th arrondissement. Jean-Robert was her private French tutor, and she asked me to join them in classes now and then. He became my occasional tutor too, his work with me supplementing what I did during my courses at Alliance Française.

Jean-Robert had spent a couple of years in the United States, spoke decent English and had the knack of anticipating what Americans were trying to say in French. He made it seem as if you spoke better French than you did. I had the impression I was holding a conversation with Jean-Robert in French (and by extension that I could hold similar conversations with more demanding Frenchmen), when I actually was being guided toward an idea of having spoken competently. Any grammatical or other conversational faults were forgiven through the gentle force of Jean-Robert’s anticipatory corrections.

Georgia’s French was never polished, but she got by, at markets, in the hair salon, on the metro. She and Catherine owned an apartment together in Paris, but English-speaking French lawyers specializing in foreign transactions had handled all of the legal and financial work. But Georgia wanted to speak French, although she never found the time to devote herself to it with the rigor that it would require to converse competently. That haphazard approach didn’t dampen her hope that at some point she’d become fluent.

Georgia would let lessons slide for a while, then on hearing one of her friends speak better French than she, she would regain her enthusiasm and organize French lessons for herself. I first met Jean-Robert one morning about a month after my arrival, just before Georgia and I were to walk to Alliance Française to enroll in new courses, she for basic conversation and me for a more advanced class. Jean-Robert had another student in the area, and before his class we shared a simple petit déjeuner at the Café Daguerre, a modest restaurant near the Denfert-Rochereau metro. During our chat, Georgia saw the ease (or perhaps the eagerness) with which I tried to speak with Jean-Robert, and asked me to join them for their next lesson.

Jean-Robert charged 40 euros for an approximately 90-minute lesson in conversation. Georgia had negotiated the price. She believed that teachers of French in France are poorly paid – she was right – and so she added 15 euros or so to the normal top range of 25 euros that tutors generally charge. I’ve met a few freelance French tutors during my time in France, and all of them scrounge about to earn a living. Jean-Robert himself, who seemed slightly better off than many (with a friend he shared a weekend home in Montréal, in the department of Yonne, in Burgundy), juggled a few gigs in addition to teaching five or six Anglophones privately. He sometimes taught classes for the city of Paris at a town hall in one of the arrondissements. He also helped teach the French military on occasion, coaching French soldiers in English.

Georgia scheduled her lessons with Jean-Robert for every two weeks or so, and when I joined them, I would pay half the 40-euro rate. She treated the lessons as a social occasion. She would buy snacks – Georgia particularly liked the large gougères (cheese puffs made from pâte-à-choux) from her local boulangerie – would break out the good glasses for the sparkling water and our lesson would unfold like a cocktail party sans cocktails. We’d sit around the coffee table in her sunny apartment as if we were simply meeting for fun, rather than to learn, which is how Georgia preferred it. Jean-Robert, in his rich smoky baritone, would ask her how her week had been going and she’d painfully and slowly recount an incident or two, usually involving shopping or a walk she’d taken with Catherine, with Jean-Robert prompting her, as Georgia, glancing at me with an acknowledging smile of amusement at her struggle, searched for elusive words. Which he did often, sometimes finishing the greater part of Georgia’s sentences, as if she were a ventriloquist’s non-sarcastic dummy. It was good practice for me, learning patience when other Americans spoke French.

Jean-Robert would then hand me a magazine clipping and ask me to read aloud and then recap an article, while he nibbled on a gougère. He would pose questions regarding sentence structure or certain phrases or idiomatic expressions. He’d ask Georgia now and then the same thing as me, but she preferred, she said to me later, to hear the two of us speak rather than join in for this portion of our little lessons.

“I know my French drives you crazy,” she told me.

“Not at all,” I said. She knew better than to respond to that.

Eventually, feeling that she weighed down my progress in French, Georgia proposed that Jean-Robert and I have separate lessons from her, which was a shame. Not only because I found the 40-euro fee too high for me alone, but also because I had come to appreciate the relaxed, tea-party atmosphere of Georgia’s French lessons. I  did manage to learn with Georgia and Jean-Robert and also felt as if I were a guest making a particularly Franco-American afternoon call, which appealed to the dreamer in me, imagining a gracious life in Paris with an apartment of my own, rather than borrowed lodgings and someone else’s décor.

I think Jean-Robert liked it better too when Georgia and I had lessons together. He found it more amusing to have two students at once, even two whose levels in French were so markedly different. I was a more determined student than Georgia, and my French progressed much further than hers ever would, but she laughed at her lack of progress, and her self-mockery taught me something too about the importance of holding onto my own humility. Learning another language is always humbling, especially when you’re older, but Georgia never gave up, and I’m sure I absorbed something more about France, about living in France, about being at ease in France despite linguistic barriers, thanks to those conversational classes with Georgia and Jean-Robert, where the conversation was never elevated but the spirits were high. And those savory gougères were really something.

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