Mon quotidien – it’s a French expression that means my daily routine. Tom, my weekly French Skype conversation partner used it this morning. I jotted it down on the pad I keep on my desk just for those occasions when I hear and learn new vocabulary. And I am always hearing and learning new vocabulary in our Monday morning conversations.
I’ve been a student of French for 40 years now – well really 48 years if you count grade school and high school. But in those first eight years (I started in 5th grade), French was always my worst subject despite how much I liked it and even envied those other students to whom it seemed to come so easily. It never did to me. I struggled right from the get-go – even though I had the benefit of a private tutor in that first year before I was shipped off to boarding school in the sixth grade. I more or less excelled in my other subjects – even in Latin (an entirely dead language, except to my Latin teachers). I was regularly the best in the class in Latin. But in French I languished – a B student at best, but sometimes a disappointing C+ student with a mediocre command of the grammar and a poor recall of vocabulary. I just assumed that I had no gift for languages (at least not the living languages), and would never speak another one with any competence much less fluency.
And then Mitchell Sedgwick spent his senior year of high school in France, and that changed everything. It changed my life. You see, Mitchell Sedgwick had possibly been the only other student in my class as poor in French as I. On graduation day, I overheard him talking with Mr. Theobald, my French teacher and college guidance counselor. I don’t recall what they were talking about and I probably wouldn’t have understood it at the time either. You see, their entire conversation was in fluid and fluent French.
Something inside of me snapped – perhaps that self-limiting belief that I could never do the same. That conversation was a watershed moment in my life. But I couldn’t have known it at the time – that has come with hindsight. What I did know at the time was that if Mitchell Sedgwick could speak French fluently, then god dammit, I could too! And I would!! And that determination planted itself solidly at my core. And true to the words of the German philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.
I committed and the universe responded to encourage me and to assist me to make my commitment a reality.
Encouragement: I’m not sure which one came first, the movie or the National Geographic article. But the two were very much married.
Friends – the movie – was a teenage love story which transpired largely in the Camargue – the marsh area of the Rhone delta in southern France, also known as the French cowboy country. An American boy – a captive of a soulless milieu of self-absorbed, disinterested, affluent parents living in Paris – meets French girl while walking alone aimlessly for the umteenth time through the city. They flirt and woo in two languages and ultimately escape the clutches of loveless families to create a family of their own in this relatively remote and removed area in the south of France. They set up house in one of the storied, straw-thatched roof, stucco-walled homes of the region surrounded by marshes alive with the sights and sounds of wild, white stallions and mares running freely. He’s a virgin at love and sex. She is a virgin at love and sex. Together they fumble; they get better at it and they find themselves pregnant. He finds work as a ranch hand. She prepares for the birth of their child.
I was seduced by it all: the storyline, the setting. the music (replete with songs composed and sung by a young Elton John). I envied the boy’s courage to walk away from parents too preoccupied with themselves and their own lives to genuinely care about him. I envied his self-reliance; his falling in love; his discovery of sex. I envied his bilingualism.
I was an 18 year-old, the produce of a pair of narcissists who’d mistakenly had twins too late in life to want to be parents, recently cast aside (in favor of another) by a girl I’d been transfixed on, and one susceptible to a story that offered an escape and a salve. I bought the soundtrack and played it repeatedly. It was soothing to the wounds of a kid longing for both love and a home where he would be valued and wanted.
I saw the movie for the first time on the day I lost my virginity to a girl I made out with the previous summer on back-to-back sultry nights on a beach in Miami. This summer, I had gone to visit her in North Carolina. The sex was not entirely unexpected. More, eagerly awaited.
So, that was the first bit of encouragement. A movie carried on in two languages that struck a deep cord, a deep hurt, a deep hole and just happened to coincide with my own sexual christening. Boy, if I could be bilingual like that kid in the movie and go to that part of the world and have a girlfriend…
And then there was the National Geographic article that came out at just about the same time as my June 1973 graduation. All about the Camargue. It was beautiful! It was too coincidental! It was a huge nudge in a direction that was not yet entirely clear to me.
And finally there was the match that lit the tinder, the igniting bit of encouragement I needed that ultimately launched me on my way to a 40-year affair with the French language and more importantly on my way to 40 rich years of relationship with my closest of friends. It all happened over the course of an afternoon spent drinking Cuba Libres while floating in a river with my high school wrestling partner and a couple of his buddies somewhere outside of a barrio near Maracaibo in Venezuela.
His dad worked for a foreign oil company and they lived in a gated compound a few hours from Caracas. Jim, my teammate, had invited me to come down to spend two weeks in early summer after school. My parents had paid for the trip as a graduation present. Jim had spent many of his childhood years living in and around Maracaibo. He spoke Spanish and had buds in the barrios. Sometimes we’d all hang out together on the compound drinking rum and cokes. Otherwise, there was little to do except play golf on the compound’s scruffy course. Pretty often, we ventured out to the surrounding barrios. I especially liked our stops at the home of an elderly woman who sold empanadas from a pot of boiling oil in her front room. I never had any idea what she was saying to me (or what was in the empanadas), but boy were they good!
The afternoon in question, Jim and I and two of his buds Jeeped it through the brush to a natural warm water pool on a local estuary. With us we brought a inflatable float and a plank to put on top so we could put down our Cuba Libres while we swam and soaked. We must have spent the better part of the afternoon. We drank, we talked, we laughed. We drank and talked some more. And at some point along the way I was hit by the realization, like an electrical shock to the system, that these kids, Jim’s buds, no older than I was, kids from the barrios of Maracaibo could carry on in English – and they did it just fine. Wow! With only a barrio education, they were speaking my language – and much better than I spoke a language that was not my own. I was impressed.
And then I was defiant. “Well dammit, if they, with only a barrio education, can speak a second language and I, with the finest education money can buy, cannot, then this will not do!” That shock to the system was the match. Boom! Right then and there I decided that I was going to defer going to college in the fall and instead go to France. I was going throw myself into total immersion and attempt to learn to speak a second language really, really well. My mind was set.
Providence moved to provide assistance.
I sprang into action when I arrived back at Logan Airport in Boston after the end of the two weeks. Instead of immediately alerting my parents that I had landed safely, I first called my college advisor, Mr. Theobald and asked to see him – that very day. Yes, this was the same Mr. Theobald with whom Mitchell Sedgwick had been speaking on graduation day. The same Mr. Theobald who had also been one of my French teachers.
He agreed. I made my way on public transportation from the airport in East Boston to his home in Milton, spilled my plans and asked about options for spending the year abroad. He offered a few. I was ever so grateful. Then I made my way home.
My parents were sitting on the porch reading the morning paper when I announced that I did not want start college the following month, but instead spend a year in France so that I could learn to speak French fluently.
Pauline’s first reaction (the part I can remember – in no small part because it was so far out in left field) was, ‘absolutely not. You won’t go to college. You’ll end up being a bum.” Cold water – not entirely unexpected but surprising in its intensity.
So I addressed my ideas to my father. In a nutshell I explained that if ever I had the opportunity to learn to speak another language fluently, this was it. The timing was perfect. I was asking for the go-ahead – which meant, I was asking him to pay for it.
And he did. I don’t know what was really going through his mind at the time and he never shared. But if I were to guess, it would be something along the lines of: I wish I’d had an opportunity to live overseas along the way. I envy you. Go.
It was early August. I had to act fast. On Mr. Theobald’s recommendations, I sent letters asking for application materials from universities in France and an organization in Connecticut that organized study abroad programs for high school students. They were just starting a new program that was for graduates as well. Initially I understood it to be in Avignon, a city very close to the Camargue. It was not until later that I learned it was in Evian. The mistake was mine, of course – a error in understanding the pronunciation. Where the fuck was Evian?
But I applied anyway. Fortunately for me, the Evian program, which was already full at the late date of my application, opened up. One of the participants dropped out. I was offered the place. I needed to send in a deposit and be prepared to leave in 4 weeks.
And 4 weeks later I left. I deferred my admittance to college for a year. I met handsome John Metz who was supposed to have been my freshman year roommate. We went sailing together for an afternoon on Cape Cod and I had a meal with his family. I fixated on him. He was blond, athletic, gorgeous and I was gay without knowing it yet. I almost changed my mind about going because I was so fixed on this guy. But providence continued to move me along toward Evian, France and not Brunswick, Maine.
September 9, 1973: Dateline Paris. It was the first stop for a few days before I and the other year-abroad students boarded a train at Gare de Lyon for Evian. I didn’t understand a thing people were saying. But I did fix on one of the girls in our group, Jacqueline. Wow, was she pretty.
At some point over the next 10 months, I did go the Camargue and I even met a girl to share it with.
July 16, 1974: I returned home – reluctantly. I left behind a host family to whom I had become quite attached. And I said goodbye to a schoolmate and adult figures who had made me feel valued and even loved. Most of them didn’t speak English. But by this time my French was fluent.
Today, I keep up my French so I can continue to have meaningful relationships with them all. I visit them and those who can visit me. We talk by phone. We’ve begun to Skype. I still keep a pad on my desk just for those occasions when I hear and learn new vocabulary.
October 27, 2014: Mon quotidien – it’s a French expression that means my daily routine. Tom, my French Skype conversation partner who’s gradually becoming a nice friend used it this morning. I jotted it down.