Raison d’etre


As of late, I catch myself smiling for no reason, reciting and writing poetry, leaping out of bed in the morning unable to contain my fervor. Muffling a giggle during a meeting. Tapping my foot on the metro. The cloudiest of days do nothing to daunt me. I have experienced a reawakening of sorts, the flame in me re-lit and burning certain. It has been a long and arduous courtship, but I have finally fallen in love.

Yes, I have finally fallen in love with the French language – and everything about it! To those who know me well, this comes as no surprise, but it’s boiled over to a point where I just have to announce it to the rest of the world!

It started the summer after 8th grade when my family and I flew to Paris, France, for a week. That was the first time I’d visited a country where I couldn’t understand the language. My family had gone to Vietnam before this, but my lackluster conversational Vietnamese still got me by. In France, I had no idea what anything was past “baguettes” and “champagne,” the latter of which I was too young to consume anyway. Out of curiosity, not necessarily a desire to learn French, I bought myself a French/Italian/German phrasebook and sounded out as many nasal sounds as I could. (“Co-MAHN tu t’apelle?”) However, I decided that I’d never be able to pick up another language by reading phrasebooks alone. So I gave up.

Instead of trying to learn French, I pulled my focus back to resources I already had: the two years’ worth of basic Spanish vocabulary I had stored in my brain…which wasn’t much, but it was something. I went to Spain two years later on a trip that eventually transformed and defined my young adulthood. Entering college, I chose to major in Spanish. All in all, the French language’s career in my life was forced into early retirement. Bu like a stubborn worker, it never gave up on me.

French came back in different forms. French songs slowly made their way onto my iPod, Edith Piaf’s gusto sounding the first alarm. Close friends would recommend French films to me. Disney released Ratatouille. Even Target started selling black and white photos of Paris! I dismissed this as an effort to capitalize on France’s appeal. Too easy. Why would I want to give into this mainstream false romanticization of a city I walked through once as a girl?

But it wouldn’t stop. It was incessant, insistent. It found other tactics to enter my life. My brother’s entrance into culinary school and penchant for French cooking introduced terms like boef bourginon into my vocabulary. My college roommate Jenny went to Switzerland one summer and came back wanting to learn French. For months, my nights were subject to YouTube tutorials of French playing in the background. My former boss’ mom, whom I spent a considerable amount of time with, would speak French to me when I drove her around, encouraging me to study the language because it was “tres sexy!” When I moved to the east coast, I quickly learned that the immigrant demographic on this side of the U.S. consisted of many West Africans, many of whom spoke French beautifully. Hell, even Vietnam’s colonial past communicated to me through textbooks that French could have once been in my blood. If not, it was at least part of my cultural heritage.

Okay, I thought. Fine.

Fast forward to about two weeks ago. I woke up one morning and decided I wanted to learn. I started with songs I already knew and painstakingly taught myself how to pronounce words. I went back to that phrasebook that I bought years ago and flipped through the pages hopefully. What a rush. I had forgotten how thrilling it was – how FUN it was – to learn a new language. After reaching fluency in Spanish, I didn’t have much to learn past additional vocabulary. I did take German as a senior in college but couldn’t even finish a full year because it was one too many courses on my already-full schedule. Learning French, though, was not going to be something I half assed, I told myself.

I sought out a group of people who meet at a restaurant called La Lavandou every weekend of the month for French workshops. After showing up, I met people who were equally excited about learning this language. My teacher was surprised of my prior knowledge of the language. This surprised even me. Who knew how much I already knew from my brother’s cookbooks, my former boss’ mom’s French interjections, the French films I’d watched, the songs I listened to, and the phrasebook vocabulary I had retained?

You could say I’ve found a “nouvelle raison d’etre” while out here.

The thing I love most about learning languages is not how the process makes me feel. While it is the closest thing I will ever know to heaven on earth, I love that language is both a barrier and a bridge to other people. It is a means to which we can learn more about each other and about ourselves. In learning a new language, we come to understand our limits but eventually come to realize that enthusiasm, earnst, and humility are understood without ever saying a word.

Signing off for now and bidding everyone bonne nuit et a plus, til next post!

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