Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Day Elvis Died, or How I Learned to Speak French: Part I

I remember the day that Elvis died. Although I have nothing against his music, I am not now, nor was I then a fan of the King, but I remember that day--August 16, 1977--very well indeed.

That summer, I was working in Toulon, in the south of France, at the S.T.E.F.--the Societe de Transports et Entrepots Frigoriques--as a manual laborer, trying to learn how to speak French and earn a little money for the fall when I returned to school in Paris. I was attending the American College in Paris during the years 1976 and 1977, and this was the summer between the two years.

During my first year in Paris, I lived in an American ghetto. My girlfriend was American, as was my roommate and were all of my friends. This narrow cultural affiliation was considered to be acceptable by me despite the fact that I was living with a French family ostensibly to increase my contact with French people and culture, but even as I made excuses for it I knew this state of affairs had to change if I was ever going to learn French.

Now, when I came to France, and Paris specifically, I didn't come with the intent of learning the language or even, to be honest, with a desire to become a francophile, even though that was the outcome. I came for more mundane reasons, though to give my Mother credit, those were but excuses for me to take advantage of being twenty years old and living in Paris.

It is safe to say that this is something she would have done herself, given the chance, and it was, in a way, a vicariously lived dream for her to send me to school in Paris. I thought I was getting away from home and starting to get the college degree I'd abandoned just two years earlier, but in fact I was setting out on one of those sea-changes I was to shortly read about in my freshman literature class with Dr. Pelen.

My desire to become more integrated with French culture, started, ironically enough, in Pelen's class, which was, appropriately enough, "Expatriate Writers in Paris". This meant that I was reading "The Sun Also Rises" in the Cafe Select, which was just down the street from where I lived. Of course, it was no accident that I should be reading that book in that place, since it was Dr. Pelen's intent to impress upon us the long tradition to which were just being introduced in our early youth. Impressed I was, not just with being an ex-pat, but gradually, slowly, with the French language and culture.

If it was to Pelen that I owed gaining a sense of my time in this place, it was to another professor at ACP--now called, quite pretentiously, the American University in Paris--that I owed my interest in French culture and in learning the language: M. Delagis. We called him the Dancing Bear, because he reminded some of us Baby Boomers of that character on Captain Kangaroo. Mr Delagis would come literally dancing into the room each day, singing a song and trying from the very first moment of class to engage us in learning to speak French.

For some of us, this technique had some positive effect. I for one had so little ability to speak or understand that I was in the very category of student he preferred most. Like a baby, I did what he did, said what he said, and moved my mouth the way he told us to, all without shame or embarrassment.

Not so for the students who had been French majors at home in high school. They came with the preconception that they already knew how to speak French, even though when it came down to it, they were the ones who froze up when asked a question by the produce vendor or a waiter in the cafe. They were the ones who cried in class when Mr. Delagis refused, on point of principle, to speak English even for a moment just to explain something that they were not understanding in French.

This gave rise to the rumor that he couldn't actually speak English, a rumor which I found to be untrue when I met him once on a ferry from England to France. While in England he told me in perfect English, he preferred to speak the language of the land. It was his principle at home as well as away, and it served me well in the classroom.

I learned to speak with a very good accent--something confirmed when I went south to live in Toulon--and I developed a habit of asking for help when I didn't understand or couldn't express myself fully.

Neither of these behaviors were of much use, it turned out, however, when I found myself in an environment where everyone spoke only French all the time. True, I could fool some people for a minute with a well practiced speech and my passable accent, and I could and would ask for clarification when the words came too fast, but the chances to use a pre-planned speech were few and far between, and asking for a repetition just meant that I didn't understand twice in a row. Fortunately for me, people are very generous when you are trying to learn their language, and I had plenty of opportunities to reverse my first-year tendency to speak French only under duress.

I didn't have much choice really. In a place where, when an Irish truck driver broke down outside the S.T.E.F., no one could communicate with him so the fetched me, asking only if I could also speak Irlandaise (Irish), every day daily conversation was by its very nature forced upon me. I couldn't back away or mumble. I had to speak up to do my job and get along with my co-workers.

It was very stressful at first, especially because even the forced -full French' environment was requiring me to speak the language, I just wasn't fluent. I still had to translate every word, every sentence to and from English every time in my head. If you've ever done this, you know it is very exhausting and a little frightening, since each encounter is a new one in a way, and the chance of screwing it up and embarrassing myself were very high at every turn.

All that changed the day that Elvis died.

Next: Part II: August 16, 1977

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