On arriving in California last November, one of my first thoughts that entered my jet-lagged brain was to do something that would keep me from forgetting the French I have learned. Or, at least not forgetting it at a faster rate than I ever learned it. The first week I was in Oakland, I got an e-mail from Alliance Française Berkeley offering anyone who wanted to join a class a huge discount. So I went on-line and found a conversation class and another class discussing French cinema. I was too advanced for the conversation one and way out of my depth for the French Ciné course. But I love films and, since Jean-Paul Belmondo had died last September, the teacher had chosen eight of his films for the class to discuss. I decided to hang in there.
I find it hard to believe but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a JPB film. Not even Breathless. He is a beloved icon and treasure here in France. I believe there was a national day of mourning in September. His photo was certainly everywhere and documentaries were playing all the time on TV. What a surprise it was for me to realize what a great actor he is/was. And especially a comedian. His mouth seems to always be just about to break into a laugh or mischievous smile. His face winks. Some of the films were better than others. I became a fan.
The problem was I couldn’t express why I liked a film or didn’t like it. I’d listen to the other class members, who all spoke better french than me, have lively discussions with the professor and each other. I looked forward to Sunday evenings when I would watch the film and dread Monday mornings at 11am PT when the class met on Zoom.
I signed up for a second two-month class. When I returned to Paris, the class would meet at 7pm CET. It wasn’t too late for me and I could say that I was keeping up French lessons. Only… I did the exact same thing: loved watching the wonderful films that our professor chose (The theme for those two months was French women directors) and dreaded Mondays.
I told myself I wasn’t going to sign up again. Why was I making myself so miserable. For some reason, I decided to discuss it with Barbara. I told her this whole language thing was really impacting how I viewed living in Paris, living in France. I wasn’t a tourist anymore. I’m a bonafide resident. I wanted to tuck my tail between my legs and run home to California. She told me that, after living here thirty-four years, she still prepares for difficult talks and discussions even though she speaks fluently. She uses the popular translation app DeepL as a helper tool and spends time in preparation. I can’t remember how the next thirty minutes of discussion went but I felt smacked upside the head–I hadn’t really taken the class seriously as a tool for learning French. I wasn’t going to improve just by showing up. Yes, I was watching the films–with English subtitles. But I needed to spend time preparing for the class — I could write out my feedback of each movie. I could practice saying it in French. It really didn’t matter what I did, as long as I did it. I have a good head on my shoulders. I have decent ideas about film but I wasn’t letting anyone in the class know me. About the best I offered was “I really liked the film but….” and I would shake my head, “I can’t really express why.” I would genuinely feel blank in both English and French.
So I signed up for another course of two months. I have been preparing in the afternoon before the class begins. So far, the class members are fine with me reading my writing and ad libbing a bit. What a change for me. I’m part of the class. They seem to like my ideas. The two hours go quickly and I’m not dreading Mondays anymore.
And here is a novel idea. Would life in Paris be like my class? If I prepared more and let people know me, would I feel a part of? Yes, I’m in my 70s and it is quite courageous to live in a new culture at my age but, if I’m going to do it, it’s worth putting time into making everything about it enjoyable.