Firenze: French Lessons II / Lezioni di francese II

The sun shone bright blocks onto the uneven flagstones of Via della Colonna. I pedaled my bike as fast and as carefully as I could, trying to not chip my teeth as the bumpy ride got the better of me. I was late.

Borgo Pinti, courtesy of Google Images.

Left on Borgo Pinti, down its dark curve, the equivalent of an urban glade. Right on Sant’Egidio, squeezed between ATAF buses, past paninoteche and L’ospedale Santa Maria Nuova where Jason took me last year about this time on a Sunday afternoon, when I had bronchitis. All the way down, the street changes names a few times, until I arrived at San Lorenzo, its unfinished and rough facade hulking over tourists and cheap shoe shops. A quick serpentine through the new barricades that the city has set up in critical places, to guard, as they can, against the current truck-ramming terrorist threat. Around the back of San Lorenzo, past the Capella Medicea, right on Amorino, and parked in a small space front of the New Caffe.

I know this route well because it is how I bike home from St. James Episcopal on Via Rucellai.

Rachael was hanging out the gallery door on Via dell’Amorino, smoking and holding her phone in the other hand.
“Salut, bonjour! I called you and sent you a message,” she waved.
I apologized and said I had been stuck behind buses in a sentence I had just rehearsed about ten times.
We went in to the gallery and back to her small classroom. Her partner came in, and walked back to his workshop, where his art seems focused on huge paintings featuring sexy anime women in futuristic red and blue swimsuits.
I whistled him a friendly “Saluuuut!”
Rachael’s eyes widened. “Your pronunciation is better than I realized!”
That is probably a word I said one zillion times in Strasbourg, I thought. Mais merci.

She was super-prepared and had created a number of handouts for me in the service of reeducating and reawakening my emotions in French. A week had gone by since the nervous first class, and I had re-centered and refocused my attention on my goals at hand.

Have fun, enjoy a language. Roll around in a language that I have, at one point, felt more or less comfortable in. In which I was proficient. Take the focus of off Italian – it is fine. Strike the target by focusing on the periphery.

And yet over the past week, excavating my layer of language learning, and brushing off dirt, I realized something I had not seen before.
The Spanish accent and vowels are closer to Italian. There is lexical overlap. Certainly.
But French grammar lines up much more tightly with Italian. There is an almost 1:1 relationship. The verbs, the past participles, wow – how did I not see this?

In my anxiety last year, I was reaching for LL1 (my first learned language – Spanish), when I would have been better served reaching for LL2 (the second – French) to assist my LL3 (Italian).

Never mind the brainwreck.

Also, Americans quickly equate Italian with Spanish, because Spanish is our far more common reference. Not that many Americans have a working knowledge of French anymore, selon moi. It is generational. French language learning was ascendant after WWII, the Marshall Plan, and the endless advocacy of Jackie Kennedy, charming Charles de Gaulle on state visits with her handsome, linguistically hapless husband.

But wait! I think I do have some French in here – let me just get it out of this back closet.
Wow – there is so much more French here than I’d remembered. And it totally wants to come out and play.

“T’as fait le devoir?” Rachael hopped to it. Had I done my homework?
“Oui, je l’ai fait.” Yes, I did it.
We got out my cahier (notebook) and she took the cap off of her dry erase marker, standing at her board.
Okay, emotions, let’s do this. Let’s reeducate.
Five basic emotions: happiness, sadness, disgust, fear, anger. These were taken to represent broader categories into which all human feelings fit on a sliding scale.

Ambitious. I like it. A very French exercise, so much culture in one hour. Pascalian in scope and content.
We covered anger, sadness, and happiness.

Mon cahier

All human feelings were examined for intensity, judged, and placed on an echelle (scale) on the whiteboard, from weakest to strongest.
We discussed how emotions create feelings, which are progressed emotions and thoughts about emotions, which can give rise to further feelings.
I took notes at high speed, scribbling a few words and expressions that I had not heard in decades. They sounded like old friends in the back room off a poorly lit pub. I loved it.
“Cette conversation me semble presque bouddhiste,” I said. This seems almost Buddhist to me.

A smile curled around her cheek.
“You are my most advanced student,” she said, “and I think I will also learn from you.”
I flushed, clearly hungry for any positive feedback for a language not my own that seems to be originating from me.
“C’est possible,” I said. Don’t get your hopes up, Paris, and thank you for teaching to my level.
She took a hilarious call from her mother. Les meres sont les memes partout, I said. She laughed and agreed.
Tomorrow we are going to debate universal income and the necessity of work to be happy. I’ll need to look up a few words, but this is entertaining.
With my goal at the periphery, I see the target more clearly than ever.
Gotta mix it up.

Firenze: French Lessons / Lezioni di francese

About a month ago, I decided that my time of intensive Italian language learning in student mode had run its course. All Italian, all the time: my brain, initially whetted by the grammatical explanations and structured conversations, had naturally transitioned to a feeling of relative calm as I moved about my business in centro. In that sense, the Italian language classes did their job: my twenty weeks of the language student masquerade had paid off.

My Spanish seems to have gone on a permanent hiatus, camouflaged among the forest of Italian trees through which I daily pick my way. It has melted seamlessly into Italian, informing my current options and accent, and providing a solid base. Yet when I am approached by Spanish speakers here, it is only Italian that comes out.

The human brain has no switch. It is organic, as is the communication it creates and attends to. If I try to steer my brain back to Spanish, the brain tacks back to Italian. There are worse linguistic fates. Thirteen years of school Spanish and living abroad were not erased, but rather transformed.

It has become clearer to me how language learning is most rapid when used daily. It is one thing to “learn” a language, but quite another to use it each day in the locale where it naturally thrives. This is why, and I am sorry to bring it up, Rosetta Stone drives me crazy. They cannot place you in Country X to learn language X. Yes, they can bombard you with conversations and touch-screen balloons and  Elmo-app-like videos, but at the end of the day, you are situated in Country Y trying to learn Language X. And that in itself certainly has its merits, giving your brain a nice workout and fracturing your perspective in new and interesting ways, perhaps. But it is not going to make you wake up one day, suddenly fluent in Italian.

For me, formal language learning has always been very relaxing. I started learning languages so long ago that a part of me just loves to be in language class. It’s how some people like to do crossword puzzles, or sudoku. Show me some conjugations, discuss the theory of representing time, correct my pronunciation, have a little conversation. It’s a bit like free-form, 4-D crossword puzzles.

It was with this in mind that a Facebook post piqued my interest on day – “French lessons, in group or private.” I contacted the woman offering them, and, after a few long chats, we agreed to meet. Her partner owns and runs an art gallery in San Lorenzo, where she keeps a small classroom.

We met at the News Caffe, her regular coffee spot, and talked a bit outside on the terrazza, which faced the Medici Chapel and was very loud and full of exhaust fumes. She lit up, and looked closely at me as she exhaled.

Capella Medicea

We chatted in French. Halting, at times, granted. But there it was, waiving its tricolore! Rachel was clearly very cosmopolitan, creative, well-traveled. New York, Morocco, from Paris – now in Italy.

We progressed to her classroom where she completed her assessment of my French skills. She seemed to have a solid plan for me. I assured her that I had no professional motives at present to work on my French, just personal ones. I just wanted to work on a language other than Italian, for a bit. Take the focus of Italian. Enjoy another mind for a bit.

I have been thinking about it a lot in the week since our first lesson, but one thing that French gave me was a sense of solid personal boundaries. French taught me how to be less obsequious. Don’t feel like smiling? Fine, don’t smile. You don’t know that person on the bus or the sidewalk; you owe them nothing. Don’t like something? Walk away. Want something? Obtain it. When I was a student in Strasbourg, it highlighted my executive function like nothing else. Additionally, it gave me a stronger sense of self, probably due to those reinforced personal boundaries. I felt more precise and clear-headed in French. There was a social model of thought and comportment to which I aspired. I felt like up to that point, I had been bizarrely spontaneous. France helped me understand how to decide how to be, and how to decide what to say.

Rachel’s instruction emphasized these same points. Uncanny.
“Tell me a story about something that happened in the past,” she said. “Tell me about when you became a mother.”
I fumbled. I had Victor when I was 37, and Eleanor at 41. They were born in the same hospital.
“I promise, I used to know these words,” I apologized.
“I know,” she said. “But you are simply reciting facts. Did you not have feelings about these events?”
Suddenly every feeling I had had in the years before we had Victor came to the surface. I felt strangely transported, and sad. What was this, a hypnosis session? Using my third language to discuss events previously only reviewed and related in my first language (longing, loss) scraped my heart down to the ground again. I blinked back tears. She did not notice how flushed I was.

How I felt
trying to explain something very traumatic to someone I had just met,
in her first language, my third.

“Let’s make a list of emotions and feelings.” She was into it, at her whiteboard, holding a marker. “Sadness, anger, happiness.”
I struggled to come up with relevant vocabulary. I could tell she was re-estimating my proficiency.
“I am sorry,” I said again. “My French is very rusty.” Maybe we could talk about something less emotionally fraught, like the buses I used to take around Strasbourg, or the places I’d been to in France.
“Well,” she said briskly, “let’s take, as a task, the reeducation of your feelings in French. You must think about how the words you use create an image in my mind. Did you think of that?”

Actually, er, no, I hadn’t thought of what words were in your mind, because I know you are French and all these words are currently in your mind, while they are not at all in my mind.

I was getting major French flashbacks. French confidence. There is nothing like it.

“Did I tell you I have published two novels?” she asked me.
I shook my head non. But I liked this fact.
I also liked the classroom in the art gallery, and this cheery, confident Parisian. I liked excavating my French, and feeling safely off-balance and uncomfortable.

I have my next class tomorrow morning, and have made my list of emotions versus feelings for our Pascalian discussion.