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.
When I hear the word Paris, my brain always goes in one direction before it hits a fork in the road. That first direction, the knee-jerk response to the word ‘Paris’ is romance. Not romance in the sense of falling in love with a person–although Paris is certainly famous for being the ‘City of Love.’ Pull up photos of Paris on the internet and you will find the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, and a couple kissing, arms wrapped tightly around each other, with an iconic Parisian structure in the background. No, for me the romance is the feeling the city instills in one almost immediately. I remember when I first moved here, I would walk the cobbled streets and the quais along the Seine, and my heart would feel so full, it often felt like it would burst open. Uncontainable. The beauty of the Haussmann buildings with their iron terrace railings, the light, the fact that no building is allowed to be over six stories high so one can always see plenty of sky. From almost anywhere, it’s possible to see Sacre Coeur and Montmartre sitting on its hill over looking Paris. There is life lived out on the streets. There is a heartbeat, a bustle to the daily activity. It literally pulses around me–even now two years after the start of the Pandemic, the streets and the sidewalks of Paris are alive.
The fork in the road?: I live in the 16th arrondissement. I am ten minutes from the Bois de Boulogne with its many gardens, Parc de Bagatelle, the two lakes near the Porte de Passy. The Bois is not the first thing people think of when they hear the word ‘Paris’. My shopping area is Avenue Mozart. I walk one direction and come to the neighborhood of Auteuil where my hyperCarrefour is. I walk the other direction and come to rue de Passy with the fancy stores that have migrated over from the Champs Elysées which no longer has any designer shops. If I’m lucky, on a clear day as I get close to Passy, I can see the top of the Eiffel Tower down a side street. The 16th arrondissement is not touristic. There are no iconic buildings that shout Paris. Only on walking down to the Seine and looking north and east, do I remember on a visceral level where I am.
Then there is the Pandemic. For two years, almost all my ‘networking’, getting together with friends and book clubs has been on Zoom. People my age have been very cautious about going out especially in crowded places. I was at a wonderful expo ,”The Morozov Collection” at the Fondation Louis Vuitton, a couple of weeks ago. I was listening to a guide give a short talk on the paintings on the first floor. We were packed around each other, leaning in with one ear closer to her than the other. I suddenly remembered reading an article on the risk of catching Covid in Paris. The article said that in a room, a closed space, that contained fifty people or more, the likely hood that someone had Covid was 98%. In a space with thirty people, the likely hood was 65%. I jumped back from the crowd listening attentively to the guide as if I’d been burned. I walked to a place where I could be six feet away from others. I felt angry. I knew there were other options for getting information about this expo but Covid was stealing this particular option from me.
I spend 75% of my day inside my apartment, I can stand on my terrace and look out over the courtyard. At night, on the hour, the lights from the twinkly Eiffel Tower bounce off the windows of the apartment building across the courtyard from me. I remember I’m in Paris. Paris is opening up but, after two years, it feels like it takes a cattle prod to unearth me and push me out to go Paris Centre and see all those sites that once made my heart swell to bursting. Fear of being around too many people has become ingrained in me. I’ve not kept track of how many tourists are here and whether the centre is crowded the way it once was. Walking near Notre Dame was like doing slalom skiing, a curly queue road to getting anywhere. I used to love it.
Having returned from Oakland, California where there is so much space, where I live in a home with a backyard, where neighbors walk together all the time, I’m struck by the contrast. They follow the rule of two out of three. A mask, social distancing, outside. One tries always to do two out of the three. It is easy to walk or hike in the many parks mask-free. Free being the operative word. Such a freedom to not be afraid all the time. Cautious yes, but not afraid. And iconic?: my bedroom window looks out over the San Francisco Bay. I can see the Golden Gate bridge, the pyramid building, the fireworks from Crissy Field on the fourth of July and New Year’s Eve.
Would I move back to California? To the US with its insane politics, mean and cruel treatment of “others”, a polarity that has caused people not to entertain interesting discussions in fear of distressing someone? Would I leave Paris? And immediately the Paris of romance jumps into my head. It sets off a longing that is physical. And I’m right here in Paris! I long for the pre-Covid Paris. In truth, for the foreseeable future, there will only be ‘Paris in the time of Covid’. Until everyone is vaccinated, and I mean most everyone in the world, this is our lives. I read recently that Fauci was quoted saying that by the end of this thing, most of us will have had Covid. More and more people that I know are getting it–breakthrough cases.
For almost two years, I’ve woken up accepting life in the time of Covid. That was before three months in California with all that space, the ease of getting together with others, speaking the native language, the wonder of the state that I have lived in (excepting the past eight years) since 1971 and re-experienced the beauty of that area. So what is troubling me? What would stop me from fantasizing about a permanent move back to California? Two days ago, Sunday, I met my friend, Barbara, out in the western suburbs. She took me to a park in Le Vésinet that she had just discovered. It was a beautiful sunny day, still cold. It is February in northern France after all! We meandered around the park, a wide open space with an island in the middle of the river that ran through it. Then we walked over to a canal with a trail that changed names three times as it crossed over streets and other walking paths. I couldn’t help comparing it to my Friday hikes with Jeanni and Rocky while in Oakland. It compared very nicely. I turned to Barbara at one point and said “this is the happiest I’ve felt since I returned a month ago.” It’s not the same as California and Oakland but Paris and France has plenty of wonderful spaces to walk and to hike.
No, it’s the language. I took French as a middle schooler. I flunked it. My french teacher would preach to me, “stop thinking in english, you must think in french.” I could barely think an interesting sentence in english much less in french. I stared at her sullenly as I had no idea how to respond. I took French again in college and even won a place to spend 4 months in Dijon during my junior year. I lived with a french family who told the college administrator that I was far too “timide” and refused to speak french with them. That timidité has never gone away. I’ve taken immersion french, I took weekly classes and I have improved. I understand street french, meaning I can converse with shop owners where no more than a couple of sentences is required. I can follow a conversation with about 75% understanding. But I couldn’t go to a dinner party and give my normally quite opinionated views on the world. I’ve conquered so many things here: french administration, getting a bank account, getting the Carte Vitale so I have health coverage, apply for and renewing my residency card every year, having to declare monies to two countries every year. But unless one learns the language well or one is completely inconsiderate of living in a country that speaks a different language, only learning the language will make one completely comfortable. It is said if you move here and want to speak fluently, get a french lover or work in a french business or both! I’ve done neither. I’m trying to push this 74 year old brain to “keep at it” on will-power and an on-and-off desire to be a good citizen.
More on France/Paris vs California/Oakland next week!!!