In 1974, I was an awkward high school freshman who needed two years of a foreign language as part of my college prep curriculum. My choices were Spanish, Latin and French. Despite having taken Spanish in junior high, the choice was an easy one. Medical school was not on the horizon, so who needed Latin? Forget the usefulness of Spanish – even as a citizen in a hemisphere populated with Spanish-speaking people. Pour moi, il était français. La belle langue!
At 14, I had no idea I would ever actually go to France. At that time in my life, a trip to Paris was about as realistic as a quick flight to the moon. Born and raised in Marietta, Georgia, my idea of world travel was hopping in the car and going to Florida. The only person I knew who had even been to France was old enough to be my grandfather. The gentleman, the father of one of our neighbors, had fought his way across France with the Allies during World War II. He came back with a few souvenirs, including a little metal replica of Mont St. Michel which he graciously let me take to my 10th grade French class for show and tell.
The thing I remember most about that first year of learning la belle langue was corralling my dad into helping me build a miniature guillotine for my class project. My dad did an amazing job…while I watched and handed him tools. My big contribution was wrapping the faux blade in tin foil. My French teacher smirked when I turned in my miniature guillotine, knowing full well I had not constructed it alone. I just looked at her and offered up a very gallic shoulder shrug. C’est la vie!
(An aside: I think I spotted my ninth grade French teacher sweating it out on the elliptical at my local YMCA a couple of weeks ago. It’s been 38 years, so I wasn’t sure the older, grayer version of l’instructeur de intimidation was the real deal. Before I could quit my own huffing and puffing and get the older, fatter and I-wash-that gray-out-of-my-hair version of myself over to find out – la femme mystérieuse had disappeared, not to be seen since.)
I took French throughout high school and by my senior year, I could read Le Petit Prince with no problems. Of course, I had a lot more fun conjugating the “F” word with my pal, Jay Downer, during my fourth-period French class. Jay (an incredibly smart guy who could speak French fluently and play music by ear) and I managed to create interesting adjectives and adverbs with the “F” word as the root. The piéce de resistance was a sentence using the “F” word as noun, verb, adjective and adverb, etc. What can I say? As 17-year-olds, we thought it was hilarious.
I wish I could say that after four years of high-school French, I could speak la belle langue fluently. I can’t. I wish I could say that I pursued my French studies in college and like my pal, Jay, summered at the Université de Sorbonne. I didn’t. Regardless, I’m headed to Paris on Wednesday and I suspect that after a two-month submersion, my ninth grade French teacher will be proud of me – even if I didn’t build that damned guillotine by myself.