Circumflexing My Muscles
As printed in Proteus, the Journal of the Delaware Valley Mensa  (May 2011)

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            France gets a bad rap here in the States. How many times have you heard the phrase, “We saved your a$$ in World War II” applied to any other country? Thing is, that’s pretty tired since they saved our a$$ in the Revolutionary War. As that assistance helped us to become an a$$-saving, independent nation in the first place, perhaps it’s time we called it even. Besides, any country that originated chocolate mousse is alright with me.

            My interest in France comes via the language. I dabbled in French during high school, though my main linguistic interest had always been Spanish. I intended to continue with the latter and study abroad one day but, it turns out, college language courses tend to focus on literature after the proficiency level. Gotta love that literature, but I doubted anyone in Spain or Argentina was likely to approach me with a book and say, “Excuse me, would you please analyze this and answer the following questions?” I wanted conversation, something I might actually use. After trying one of the few post-140 level classes that interested me, I decided with some sadness that, after six years plus one college semester, I would end my formal study of Spanish.

            While flipping through the course guide to choose my sophomore fall schedule, I noticed an accelerated intro to French course designed for students who had already passed the proficiency exam in another language. It would cover French 110 and 120 in one semester instead of two, and would meet daily instead of on alternating days, for six hours per week instead of the usual three. This was an intro class designed for people who must really, really want to be there. Sign me up!

            Next came the combined 130/140 class in the spring, which is significant because that’s about when I learned of a study abroad program for students in my undergraduate business program. It required language proficiency since participants would stay with non-English speaking families, and local college faculty would conduct classes entirely in French (Grammar, French History, Business French, International Relations, and Marketing in Europe). Upon reflection, it was pure insanity that prompted me to apply for my junior fall semester. I would get my long-abandoned wish to study abroad, but it would be in France!

            France’s second largest city of Lyon is considered the gastronomy capitol of the world. Me, I was looking for the Doritos, but eventually settled into a life of morning café stops for this fabulous croissant that was magically wrapped around a slim bar of dark chocolate. I preferred mine microwaved for about eight seconds to melt the inside just so. Ahhh. The absolute perfection of this pastry almost made it worthwhile to endure the daily embarrassment of having to order it out loud. Fitting that the French name for this is pain au chocolat, emphasis on P-A-I-N when pronounced by newly-arrived Americans.

            I was so not ready to be there, and my first two weeks were spent asking myself, over and over, in English, Spanish, and French, “What were you thinking? What were you thinking?” There I was, the ink from my proficiency exam barely dry over the summer, while the other end of my group’s 17-student bell curve consisted of French majors. Awesome.

            To my relief, the people of Lyon were lovely to me. With only one exception – some blond kid at a fast food counter – no one made fun of my then pathetic attempts to speak in this melodic, complicated language full of sounds that American mouths lose the ability to pronounce with ease long before my age of 19. I would have loved to give Counter Kid a piece of my mind, but you know what? I couldn’t. Not in French. And to respond in English would have been a waste of everybody’s time. You know what sucks? The mental prison of being so hindered, of having such a limited capacity to communicate. As it was, I merely turned and left; unable to offer a witty retort, I could at least take my business elsewhere. If there was anything I could find in France, it was more food. The good news is that the obnoxious kid was the exception, just as that same kid is the exception here in the USA. Some things are universal.

            Over time I improved significantly; I can hardly take credit for this, as I had little alternative. But it was hard. My respect grew for those who put themselves through this for far meatier reasons in life than a college semester abroad. I realized that, as exotic and romantic as other languages may sound, it can be tough to be completely surrounded by them for 24 hours a day. The rarity of hearing English transformed it from words to music. It would rise above any other sound in any environment, and my fellow students and I would cross the street to speak to strangers after hearing it. Yet, I learned, “use it or lose it” applies even to my own native language. Our group had established an internal version of Franglais by mid-semester, building sentences with whichever words came to mind first. It was always strange when a French word won out.

            Then there were the borderline words, the ones that sort of work in both languages, but sort of don’t. One night in the metro, instead of, “Should we go down these stairs?” one of the students said, “Should we descend here?” A strange sentence in English, but the French word for “to go down(stairs)” is “descendre.” Another student wrote “danse” in a letter to her sister back home. She knew right away that something was off, but it took her several seconds to figure out what. It was a trippy, trippy time for every one of us, but we were all fortunate to have experienced it.

            I have tried to keep up with my French in little ways over the intervening years. I accept that I will forever struggle with remembering whether a given object is considered masculine or feminine, because the concept remains as meaningless to me now as it did on day one. C’est la vie. My accent, on the other hand, is not bad! This helps a great deal when I mistake the obviously female stapler for a dude, for example, as I’m told it comes off as rather charming when I do it. Hey. I’ll take what I can get.