When I was eleven-years-old and began junior high school, the class which excited me the most was French. Language fascinated me because I love to communicate with other people. The idea that I might speak a different language--not just English--and be able to speak with all sorts of people in their native tongue was so exciting to me. As luck would have it, my teacher did not particularly like me. She was a single woman who lived in Manhattan, which seemed incredibly chic to a girl living in suburban Long Island. Mademoiselle R. was very thin, and very fashionable. The fact that she was not fond of me didn't change the fact that she was a very good teacher. Her detached manner only made her seem more alluring and fascinating. I studied French through my junior year in high school, and had other instructors. Whenever Mademoiselle R. was our teacher, she would take us on class outings. We came into Manhattan to see a Truffaut film on the Upper East Side. We went to a cinema in Huntington which showed art and foreign films exclusively, and viewed Les Diabolique. It was while I was watching this magnificent film that I realized that I understood what the actors were saying. I understood French!
When I was twenty-three, I went on "The Grand Tour" of Western Europe. My friends and I took Icelandic Air and, after a rather interesting weekend in Reykjavik, landed on the Continent in Luxembourg. We dropped off our luggage at the hotel, and proceeded to a restaurant, a restaurant in which only French was spoken. I don't think it was jet lag which made me weak in the knees and woozy. All of the patrons of the restaurant, all the servers, were speaking French--fluently! I was intrigued and intimidated. Desperately in need of a restroom, I approached a waiter and timidly asked, Où est la salle de bain?
He looked at me as though I were feeble-minded, then replied,
Avez-vous besoin d'utiliser le toilete ?
I felt like “une idiot femme,” blushed profusely and then ran to the toilet.
This poor start did not prevent me from opening my mouth and speaking French for the rest of the summer of 1986. Fortunately, I had learned German in college, and had ample time to practice that in Germany and Austria. When we spent weeks in Italy, I realized I longed to understand what these animated people were talking about as they sat in the caffe and drank espresso. Most conversations seemed revolve around “una ragazza” or “un ragazzo,” which I later learned meant “girlfriend” and “boyfriend.”
Our tour of the Continent ended in France, and we spent a week in Paris. We spent quite a lot of time in the cinemas. We shopped. We ate bad American fast food because we didn’t know that “pommes frittes” were the mother of French fries. One of the most breathtaking sights I’ve ever had was the view of Paris from the top of the Eiffel Tower observation deck. I didn’t have the opportunity to make any French friends. So many Parisians seemed aloof. I did not realize that the Parisians were living their lives and, being urban dwellers, bored with the sight of a young woman tourist, if I even registered on their radar. And, as with Mademoiselle R., I found the French even more fascinating.
A few years later, I moved into Manhattan. For several years I worked for a French-born literary agent and sold foreign rights for the agency's prestigious authors' books. I became more sophisticated. I found tourists annoying. I was an urban dweller, and I loved my city.
When I was thirty-eight, 9/11 happened. What helped me heal was the documentary film 9/11, directed by the French-born Jules and Gedeon Naudet. Jules was one of three people who recorded clear footage of American Airlines Flight 11 hitting Tower 1 (the North Tower) of the World Trade Center. After 9/11, I began speaking French with tourists, with taxi drivers, with French New Yorkers, with French friends. I speak with a lot of people because my childhood dream of communicating with everyone can be realized. I speak with a lot of people because I want to understand evil, and need to know that other people are horrified by evil. I need to know that there are good people. And there are, and they speak all different languages, and come from other countries, and have families, and jobs, and dogs, and hopes and dreams, and they want to live peaceful lives.
French, “la plus belle langue,” the most beautiful language, opened so much of the world to me. Sometimes I find the language, the people, impossible to comprehend. Then I go back to the basics and realize that if I take my time, I can understand French. And “the French” are people who happen to live in France.