When I was in my 20s and working in a boring office job, taking ballet classes at night, I decided to learn French. Ballet taught me the only French I knew: ronde de jamb, plié, tour jeté. Nothing useful in real life.
I checked with the nearby university and found a young woman from the Sorbonne in Paris — beyond exotic to me. Every week, she taught me important things like swear words and how to get around in the City of Lights. I learned how to ask for une chambre on the fifth floor if I found myself in a small hotel on Rue Racine; how to order in a restaurant or yell for a cab. Conversational French at its best — none of the conjugated verbs I’d learned in high school Spanish — utterly useless if I traveled to Argentina and needed to find a bathroom.
I found it easier to read French than to understand it and I’d practice my comprehension by flipping through Paris Match and French Elle, my pocket-sized Larousse French-American dictionary next to me, feeling très hip. Until I’d get to an article that I wanted to read and no amount of thumbing through the dictionary or looking at the pictures could help me figure out what the article was about. These days, you’d just pull out your iPad and Google “translate” but back then you were stuck with the red, white and blue dictionary.
My tutor was so much more chic than I could hope to be, with her silk scarves flung artfully over her shoulder and her Hermès loafers. One night, she invited me to a party with her equally stylish friends to practice what I’d learned. I felt utterly gauche in my Levi’s and Nikes, gripping a glass of lukewarm cheap Chablis that was already giving me a headache, while the sibilant sea of conversation swirled around me. A guy drinking Pernod asked me if I spoke French. I replied, “Un peu,” a little — unfortunately, very little. I could feel my face freezing into a deer-in-the-headlights stare as I was hit by his ensuing barrage of incomprehensible words. My favorite expression was “Comment?” Roughly translated, “Huh?”
After my tutor returned to Paris, I found an elderly woman willing to teach me. Each week in the winter, I’d venture downtown to her home, where Madame would offer me buttery madeleines that she’d baked herself and we’d drink Mariage Frères tea laced with Grand Marnier out of delicate china cups. I’d tell her, in hopelessly fractured French, what I’d done since our last lesson.
At the end of the hour, she’d send me home with a petite package of nougats — a trifecta of French delicacies to reward me for speaking bad French. I didn’t learn much but I ate well. She was kind and so frail, and one day in early spring, her husband called to cancel our lesson because she had died in her sleep.
A couple of years later, I moved to the West Village and enrolled in the New School. The first class I signed up for was Conversational French. I also enrolled in a Wine Appreciation class. My wine class met at a restaurant on Waverly Place. We’d taste five or six wines and I’d wend my way through the streets back to Fifth Avenue for my French class, my concentration level dipping in direct proportion to how much I liked that evening’s wine selections.
That was the end of my French lessons.
I never used the French I learned, not having spent time in France. I stay fairly close to home these days, admiring the wanderlust of friends who travel to Europe and Asia and other far-flung destinations as easily as they would ride the ferry.
I can still read un peu de Français and when I taste a madeleine, I think, not of Proust, but of Madame. Those swear words often come in handy too. I may never think in French or converse with a native speaker and be understood, but my efforts weren’t wasted. C’est la vie.
Author’s note: When I was writing this, I realized just how much French I had forgotten or never known. Thanks to friends from Brussels and Paris and closer to home for the help.