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Barbara Middlebrook

Adventures in the Language

The Mule Drives Me

Stubbornness is a major force in my life. This mule-like quality is the only reason I ended up at a language school in the French city of Dijon for eight weeks in summer a few years ago. I wanted to get a grip on French. I didn't need it for work, or for travel or for anything. It's just that I'd taken untold years of French in the American school system; yet, on a two-day trip to Paris when I was twenty-one, I essayed one sentence in the Gallic tongue and got it wrong. That was all it took to germinate the seed of stubbornness. Seventeen years later, when I was almost forty, I made good on my venerable promise of going to France to study French.

I enrolled in a language program at the Centre International d'Études Françaises. I arrived, by bus, in the city of Dijon at 6:30 am on a Monday morning and took a taxi to my dormitory. There weren't many people out at that time of day, though I still managed to see three early risers striding down the sidewalk, baguettes clutched in their hands. Yet another country conforms to its stereotype, how comforting. My French class was taught by an earnest little chap with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of Amnesty International t-shirts. He liked to quiz me after class about American avant-garde composers and performance artists -- John Cage, LaMonte Young, Meredith Monk.

Dijon is the capital of the famous wine-producing region of Burgundy. But true to the mode and budget of the long-term traveler, I continued to buy wine in three liter boxes. I could, however, buy wine in the supermarket for $0.65 a bottle. And I did. The next time I went to the store, though, they were sold out of the really cheap stuff. The French are not so different after all, I thought.

Yes, We Have No Tomatoes Today

I tend sometimes to be overambitious, over-confident of my imaginary abilities. Being in another country reminded me daily of this hubris. Landing someplace, alone, where everything was in a foreign language proved to be more bewildering than I had anticipated. The struggle to convey the most basic needs quickly eroded my self-confidence. After a week in France, and more years of classroom French than I would care to admit, I was dismayed to find that I couldn't make myself understood simply trying to get clean sheets.

At first I felt terribly isolated. The hardest part was not being able to speak. I am normally a garrulous person and suddenly I was silenced. I could only listen, and not understand. My mood would swing wildly. Sometimes things were all very French and wonderful, but a lot of the time I felt frustrated and humiliated. Going to France was a humbling experience. How could it fail to be when every time I opened my mouth, I did something wrong?

The inability to communicate became a daily trial. I never got what I wanted in restaurants and I always paid too much for it. At one cafe, if I ordered the lunch special of the day (“le plat du jour”), it came with a salad of greens and garden vegetables. But if I tried to order the same salad à la carte, I would get only a plate of lettuce. No matter how much I said the words for “carrot” and “tomato,” I could not get the salad that comes with the plat du jour. Elle n'existe pas.

I quickly developed cell phone syndrome. When attempting to interact with a local person, I started talking louder in the vain hope that this would enable him to understand my fractured French. I also became very good at pretending to understand the language. I even fooled the other foreigners, who watched me nod enthusiastically and exclaim “ah, oui” as a wave of French washed unfathomed over my ears. “What did she say?” the other students asked. I shrugged my shoulders. “I have no idea,” I replied, and they all laughed.

To improve oral comprehension, I listened to the radio. French radio was perfect for this, as the airwaves were mostly full of simple, insipid songs about, what else? -- l'amour. The first line I heard when I turned on the radio was: “...quand tes yeux me parlent d'amour” --... when your eyes speak to me of love. On the oldies station, I heard the Tokens' one-hit wonder, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” redone note for note en français. Why bother, I wondered? This takes the Gallic mission of language purity a little too far, if you ask me. Still I was relieved to learn that “a wimba-weh, a wimba-weh” is the same in French as it is in English.

A Few Words Go A Long Way

I began to register useful improvement linguistically when I mastered the basic vocabulary -- yes, no, good, well, then. With these simple words I could get by. More vocabulary came slowly and lack of it caused problems. Not knowing the word for “tuna,” I asked the storekeeper one day, what was in the tuna quiche? “Tuna (thon),” she answered sharply.

In trying to accomplish daily tasks I had reached the point where I could understand many important questions and caveats. Really, this was just a trick of picking out the salient noun, ignoring the rest and imagining what you thought was being said to you. It occurred to me that this must be exactly how a dog hears us.

The language school brought together a mélange of people. Talk at the discotheque frequently went like this, “Looks like Switzerland is getting somewhere with Israel,” or “Taiwan is striking out with Croatia.” In class, we were assigned to give short exposés on some aspect of our home country. One unfortunate student's presentation on Chinese New Year prompted a lively exchange on whether or not the Chinese really do eat dogs (yes) and if so, what kind of dogs, how do you cook them, what do they taste like? We discussed eating Snoopy for about fifteen minutes, all in French.

During another exercise, a young American woman turned to me and said, “I could be so funny if I knew how to say anything. Over here I have no personality.” I looked around the room at the other students, the Koreans, Brazilians and Swedes, gesticulating wildly with their hands, straining to break out of the shell imposed by language. Verbal impairment leached the color out of people, some more than others. I wondered if the shy students, used to making their mark with few words and small, resonant gestures, dealt more successfully with the constraints on communication. Perhaps they even enjoyed those limits, basking in their moment of grace.

More Than Mustard

I ended up in Dijon more or less randomly, because the cheapest language program I could find was located there. As if indicating an arranged rightness to things which doesn't really exist, Dijon turned out to be the perfect base for acquainting oneself with France and the French life. First there was the history. It's not just that it surrounded you. It was more of an onslaught, until the defeated, bleary-eyed tourist could take no more and had to retreat directly to the nearest McDonald's for a Big Mac, fries and a shake.

In Burgundy, if you wanted to see notable examples of human achievement in art and architecture, you could start with Roman times and just keep going. Sometimes you could see all eras represented in one spot. You could visit a Beaux Arts school from the 1900s built on a neoclassical 18th-century town hall, enveloping a Renaissance high Gothic cathedral erected over an early medieval Romanesque church, which used a foundation wall from an earlier 9th-century church and supported its barrel vaults with recycled Roman columns, complete with intact Corinthian capitals.

The dukes of Burgundy rivaled the kings of France in their wealth and power, and left an impressive bounty for tourists. In turn, the riches and authority of the Church, more specifically the Benedictine empire emanating from the gigantic abbey at Cluny, challenged the kings and dukes. The root source of much of this prosperity was wine.

The wine-steeped historical atmosphere attracted a fair number of tourists to the region. Yet Dijon remained very, very French. The Frenchness of things was something that the language students liked to note. Every day we would swap stories of things we had seen or done that were très, très français. This is something the tourist doesn't so often remark in Canada (“It was very Canadian.”) or Denmark (“Oh, it was so Danish.”). But France can be, and often tries to be, very French.

A House For The Birds

A sign of progression with the language is when you can understand your first little joke. The language school organized a weekend trip to Provence. We stopped in Orange, where a professor described the ancient sites and Roman legacy of the town. He also noted that “there is a big McDonald's here. The Romans thought of everything.” I smiled as much for comprehension as for humor.

Arles, in Provence, is the site of a great Roman amphitheater. Nowadays they have installed bleachers and hold bullfights there. Not Spanish bullfights, but les corridas Camarguaises. Supported by my questionable French, I understood that these are just games in which the bull runs out wearing a funny red hat. The toreador appears, stabs the hat, places it on his own head and runs out of the ring. Then the bull exits and everybody cheers.

It's easy to get jaded after too many Roman ruins. That is, until you are perambulating the vaulted corridors, reading the seating placards drilled into the walls, looking for the toilets. Then it occurs to you -- people have been wandering these same hallways for two thousand years looking for the latrine. While pissing against an old Augustinian wall in the WC, the second thing you realize is that the Roman toilets were probably better than these.

Beginning in the Dark Ages, the amphitheater was turned into a fortified village. Two lookout towers were added at different times. One is Saracen, or Moorish, and the other is a medieval Christian structure. We climbed the medieval tower. Up on top, a little French girl about five years old was scampering around her parents. One trick you discover in a foreign country is that talking and listening to small children is one of the best aids to learning another language. Young kids speak so simply and use a limited vocabulary.

The girl looked up at a bird disappearing into its nest in one of the old lookout portals. After she and her parents all agreed that, yes, it was a bird, she said, “la maison des oiseaux” -- the house of the birds. The sweetness of this loses something in English. Still, you may stand there and see two millennia of empire building, barbarian invasion, religious wars, Moslems killing Christians, Christians murdering Moslems; or you may see just a house for the birds.

A Little Higher Up Than Where I Began

When the language course ended, I took a trip to Chamonix, the original mountain tourist town. Chamonix was a schizophrenic place. People couldn't decide if they wanted to speak French or English. Since most peoples' English was better than my French, I reluctantly let myself be addressed in my native tongue.

Rather than experiencing relief, I felt bored, let down by this presumption. I had worked so hard just to figure out how to order a ham and cheese sandwich with mustard, no butter, and a double-shot coffee. There was no challenge left in going out to eat. English speakers were everywhere. How strange it was to realize after a while that I actually understood the conversation I was tuning out at the next table. I sensed my tentative grasp of French melting faster than the surrounding glaciers.

I went for a stroll by the frigid-looking river and stopped at a sign that cautioned against adventuring hereabouts in one's bed. Okay, so my French still needed some work. A lot of work.

But like the peak of Brevent revealing itself now and then through persistent mists, there were some bright spots. I sat outside one day at my favorite cafe and ordered, in French, a small coffee with steamed milk on the side and a slice of warm apple pie. The server asked if I wanted the regular apple pie or the regional kind, which had just arrived fresh. “It's like that,” I said, and gestured the correct shape with my hands. A few minutes later she returned carrying exactly what I asked for. The pie and coffee tasted especially good.

©2009 by Barbara Middlebrook

Barbara Middlebrook lives and writes in the foothills of the Colorado Rockies. She fears she has reached the point in life, age, and general economy when she can no longer just up and quit a good job to be free (for a while). This makes her sad.

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