Shortly after I installed myself in the new apartment on the Rue Saint-Denis, I started working with a French tutor. I figured I’d begun to speak and read well enough so that I no longer needed to attend classes at the Alliance Française, where I’d spent about six months acquiring the basics of the language. I was delusional, of course: at that point I spoke like a gifted beginner who could get by for those willing to forgive constant errors, and I wrote like a five-year-old in a slow-learning class.
Still, I was eager to continue my studies. A woman named Mikol, the longtime fiancée of Giuseppe, one of the Alliance Française students I’d temporarily befriended, had suggested to me a tutor with whom she’d worked at Unesco. The friendship wth Giuseppe was temporary, by the way, because once Giuseppe moved back to Italy he lost all interest in keeping up with the people he’d met in Paris – he didn’t like the country where he’d attempted to find work as a pediatric ophthalmic surgeon and by extension he also wanted, I’d assumed, to forget everyone associated with the misery he considered his life to be France. Some transplants you meet abroad are like that: your relationship with them is less about getting to know you and more about killing time until something or someone better comes along.
Anyway, Mikol had recommended Bernard, the tutor, and his price was good: 10 euros an hour.
This was well below market rate. I know some French tutors in Paris who charge about 25 euros an hour, and Jean-Robert, with whom I’d taken lessons with my late friend Georgia, charged 40 euros for 90 minutes, which was a little high for me, as interesting as Jean-Robert’s conversation and teaching were.
Bernard arranged to meet with me three times a week. Like many French tutors in Paris, he’d come to one’s apartment (and as I moved around over the next few years, he he’d meet me wherever I found myself). Bernard lives in Ris-Orangis, a commune about 10 or so miles southwest of Paris, in the Essonne, and much of our early conversation revolved around the horrors of his commute into Paris on the RER (delays and daily unpleasantness were common).
Bernard had retired from Orange, the telecom, and he told me that part of his work there had involved helping people there with their language skills. His teaching turned out to be an extension of that part of the work he’d enjoyed at Orange. He didn’t teach for the money so much, he said, but for the pleasure of helping people speak better French – so for him the 10-euro fee was almost an honorarium.
Although I had made French friends, who were quite patient with my still-developing facility in the language, I wanted to practice conversing with Bernard. He’d be free to correct me, which he did (most of my friends were too polite with me to correct all but my most egregious errors), and to explain some of the idiomatic expressions I’d come across in my studious reading of newspapers and certain French novels (I hadn’t yet graduated beyond middle-grade literature). I also wanted to practice my written French.
This was particularly important. I didn’t want to be one of those people relatively new to a language whose emails were hilariously wrong. I’ve seen such emails in English from non-native speakers and, although you tell yourself you shouldn’t, you can’t help but collapse into laughter at the wrongness of the turns of phrase. I was hoping to avoid becoming the object of ridicule for my faulty French writing.
When Bernard met me at my apartment – or the apartment of Alex and Julie that I called home for a few months – we’d chat about whatever I’d done the day before or whatever I was planning to do that evening or that week. This was relatively easy – not only because I was beginning to become more at ease in the language, but I was beginning to better understand varieties of French speech.
When you grow up in a language, you absorb differences in its pronunciation, its different accents and different intonations, and you comprehend the vast range of how a language is spoken by its native and non-native speakers. When you acquire a language in middle age, as I was doing, it takes more time to discern the meaning of individual words or phrases behind someone’s particular way of speaking. It doesn’t take much in the sound of a word to change its meaning (or your comprehension of the word itself). I can only now figure out if someone is from the southwest or southeast, or is a French speaker from Belgium or Switzerland. Enough variations exist even within the so-called normal range of accents in France that a few years ago it took me a while to follow what people were saying without having to ask them to repeat themselves.
So I could get by in conversations, especially monitored ones such as Bernard conducted with me. Writing, however, was far more difficult. We students had had our share of written exercises at Alliance Française, but they weren’t extensive or frequent enough for me to feel that my writing in French would be generally error-free. Students rarely got individual attention from the teachers, who were more intent on getting through the lesson plan according to what Alliance Française had set out for its courses than in addressing our particular questions regarding sentence structure.
So Bernard give me little essay assignments. They were, to put it kindly, challenging. Not because the subjects were arcane, but because I had rarely had the opportunity to express myself without a guide, such as the workbooks we’d used at Alliance Française. I even, to my shame, relied on Google to put some of my English-language thoughts into the flat literal-minded French that the automatic translator offered up. I hadn’t yet begun to think in French as much as I had hoped, given that I was able to respond to random questions from shopkeepers and passersby without too much problem. But writing in terms that explored abstract thought, or opinions beyond the quotidian, was something else.
But I kept at it, Google Translate and all. I eventually managed to do away with that crutch and to explain what I was thinking on my own, except for searches in a French-language dictionary. What struck me – and what still rather surprises me – was my fierce determination not only to get by in French, but to speak it and write it well. Those early assignments from Bernard, which he corrected with humor and patience, were equivalent to Czerny piano exercises, attacked with a bit of dread but eventually, if not mastered at least tamed.
I didn’t want to become a French writer, but to write in French. This served no purpose other than to be able to communicate well in that language, which is enough, isn’t it? If I was going to the trouble of learning French in order to explore how people in France considered and regarded the world, I at least wanted to be able not only to follow what they were saying and thinking, but to meet them at least halfway in saying and thinking what I thought, in their language. I wasn’t there, like Giuseppe the unhappy Italian, to bide my time until I could return to Palermo, but to broaden myself through linguistic and cultural riches I was only beginning to comprehend.