Paris-bound tomorrow. Very excited about venturing forth into the land of wine, cheese, and labor strikes. I’ll be at my host’s place in the 15th arrondissement by twilight (unrelated: I’d like to reclaim that word from its association with juvenile vampirism, please and thank you) so there will be plenty of evening left.
I have been to France twice but this is the first time I’ll have the opportunity to make it my own. Last time I went with my grandparents and uncle, and the only thing I managed to say in French was “un petit peu.” Everyone rattled off in English the moment they detected the Anglophone clan ambling up the Rue des Étrangers with an angsty teenage me in tow.
I’ve taken enough French to get by but they can only teach you so much in school. “Le chat est sur la table” surely won’t get you very far when you find yourself being swarmed by an army of putrid trinket salesmen at the Eiffel Tower.
It’s said that learning a new language is like creating a new soul – one must learn to express oneself all over again. On the rare occasion that I’ve had the opportunity to converse in French, I’ve felt like a toddler – I get flustered and end up intonating everything as if it were a question. It feels silly at best not to be able to find the right word; at worst it’s downright agonizing. But there are no shortcuts. I would love to be able to rebuild my personality in French but that is many eons away.
It helps to swill back a couple of adult beverages before you endeavor to recreate your soul anew. Arnaud was so patient with me when I got slightly drunk and tried to explain to him, in French, the difference between the Amish and the Mormons – “Comment dit-on ‘batshit fucking crazy?'” said I. It was a good start.
The best part of language is learning those expressions that we wish we had in our native tongue, and conversely, taking pride in our own language. I don’t yet know of any untranslatable and beautiful words in French, but I’m sure my linguistic victories and defeats will be central to this trip. In English, for example, we use “human” as an adjective as well as a noun. We use the concept of human-ness to emphasize the fact that we aren’t just bags of blood and bones. It’s a go-to expression that we don’t really think about, but it’s no easy feat to try to break down the idea without invoking the expression itself. Divine would be the closest thing, but that sounds a bit self-aggrandizing. “Human” evokes both sides of our condition – the humble and the noble.