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WORLD OF WORDS: How a mysterious passion for learning French has shaped the life of writer Marianne Bohr

Marianne Bohr in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris—is she reading or indulging in reveries about words?

Marianne Bohr in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris—is she reading or indulging in reveries about French words?

New columnist Marianne Bohr, whose first book, Gap Year Girl, is about to come out with She Writes Press, is here with her second post attesting to how a passion for learning languages can engender a passion for travel.

I decided long ago that I was born in the wrong country. There must have been some mistake. But then again, if I’d been born in l’Hexagone, my passion for all things French wouldn’t exist. I’d have been raised with the language’s romantic euphony, and the fluid succession of words would be part of my everyday world. Some other tongue and faraway culture would have caught my fancy—so perhaps, just perhaps, it’s fortuitous my birthplace was Fort Wayne, Indiana, and not Paris.

Passions are essential to a happy life. When we care about something, it shrinks the world to a human scale, breaking it into wieldy pieces to love and nurture. My passion for French shapes my world, yet why I love this lyrical language so dearly is an essential mystery I’ll never fully understand.

In my first post I spoke about the decision my husband, Joe, and I made to do a senior year abroad at age 55. For the final six weeks of our “gap year” traveling through Europe, we settled into Aix-en-Provence, a stylish, sun-kissed university town in the south of France. We delighted in the daily outdoor markets and spent hours in cafes along the Cours Mirabeau, sipping rosé wine and listening to the mellifluous French chatter around us.

Photo credit: Les Deux Garçons, by tpholland via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

I signed up for daily French conversation classes, hoping to further exercise my sometimes-lazy American jaw in preparation for the new career that awaits me back in the States. Over thirty years in book publishing is behind me and armed with the degree I completed before we left for our gap year, I’m ready to embrace being a French teacher, full throttle.

First day of school

I’ve always loved being a student of French, no matter my age, but on the first day of my class at IS Aix-en-Provence (a language institute that specializes in teaching French to adults), I’m predictably nervous, as I’ve been on day one of every school year of my life. I lay out my clothes the night before and imagine first days of school gone by: my freshly ironed plaid uniform, crisp white blouse, just-purchased navy knee socks with tags still attached, and newly polished oxfords. I pack a snack, just as I did in grammar school, and I’m ready to go.

My giddy younger self emerges the moment I cross the classroom threshold, polished floorboards creaking, where I am once again a wide-eyed schoolgirl eagerly poised over a blank composition book, pencil sharpened and my ardor for the subject on my sleeve.

My class of ten includes students from Australia, Finland, the Netherlands, Spain, and Sweden, none of us a youngster and all on an educational vacation in summertime Aix. I introduce myself and stumble on the choice of tense. Do I use the present or the future tense of “to be”? Do I affirm I am a French teacher, or do I demur and say I’ll soon be a French teacher? I opt for the former, Je suis prof de français. It bolsters my confidence with a frisson of pride.

My prof is Céline—gorgeous, funny, and particularly warm. I so wish I could be like her—une jolie française who speaks lovely French. As I walk home from class, it hits me, as it has so often before: yes, I am a newly minted French teacher, but no matter how I try, no matter how I practice, no matter how fiercely I study, I’ll never be French. I’ll never be française. I’ll never sound like Céline. I’ll forever be on the outside looking in, my face and palms pressed against the linguistic glass. I plunge into a microflash of depression. But I proceed across town, under soaring sycamores, content to have a passion I can call my very own.

The French and their apocopes

The French often truncate words by dropping the final syllables and adding an “o.” Apéro, McDo, and resto (aperitif, McDonald’s, and restaurant) have long been staples of my French vocabulary, but thanks to my classes, I add abbreviations to my repertoire:

  • accro hooked on
  • les actus (the news),
  • un ado (an adolescent),
  • bio (organic),
  • un dico (a dictionary),
  • perso (personal), and,
  • (my favorite) Sarko (Nicolas Sarkozy).
Shortened French words

A few examples of the Gallic fondness for apocopes. Photo credits: Apéro au coin du feu, by Sébastien Bertrand via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); English-language dictionary via Pixabay; _EPP Summit, by European People’s Party via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Each week in class, we prepare presentations about les actus, and I do one on social media. Twitter and blogger have now entered the daily lexicon as regular “-er” verbs. We learn the quirky French term for “walkie-talkie” (talkie-walkie), that the expression vachement bien (amazingly good), which was very popular thirty years ago, is much less in vogue nowadays, and that it is très chic to say super (pronounced “sue pair”—accent on the “sue”), especially if you’re a woman.

The café was super-bon; your dress is super-chic; he looks super. I imagine the French language police, the Académie Française, must be super-fâché (very angry) about all the new Franglais.

Why won’t anyone speak French with me?

Indeed, much has changed in France over the past 35 years. There’s a new generation with kinder attitudes, more customer-service orientation, and lots of English spoken, so unlike the France of days gone by. Everyone wants to speak English, but I want to speak French. I’m bolstered by Joe, who always encourages, “Make them speak French, babe,” so we have uneven, lopsided exchanges:

“Good evening, madame.”

“Bonsoir, monsieur.”

“Would you like an aperitif?”

“Oui, je prends un kir, s’il vous plaît.”

“Very good. And you, sir?”

“Un kir aussi, merci.”

It’s initially disconcerting, but they eventually get the point and give us what we want. They speak to us in French! We really do appreciate the attempt to be accommodating and their eagerness to practice our language. If only we Americans would exhibit the same passion for learning new tongues.

* * *

Thank you, Marianne! How about the rest of you out there? Do you have a passion for a foreign language and if so, what kind of lengths have you gone to in its pursuit? Do let us know in the comments!

Marianne C. Bohr is a writer, editor and French teacher whose book, Gap Year Girl: A Baby Boomer Adventure Across 21 Countries, will be published in September 2015 (She Writes Press). She married her high school sweetheart and travel partner, and with their two grown children, follows her own advice and travels at every opportunity. Marianne lives in Bethesda, Maryland, where after decades in publishing, she has followed her Francophile muse to teach French. She has an author site where she keeps a blog, and is active on Facebook and Twitter.

STAY TUNED for the next week’s fab posts!

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2 responses to “WORLD OF WORDS: How a mysterious passion for learning French has shaped the life of writer Marianne Bohr

  1. Carole Bumpus August 23, 2015 at 2:42 pm

    I thoroughly enjoyed Marianne’s description of her longing for all things French–including the language. I, too, grew up in a small midwestern town where only Spanish was offered, but I was able to take a university correspondence course in French as long as I was tutored by someone French. That was the most fortuitous move for me as my tutor was a most delightful WWI war bride from Marseilles. My love of the French (and French history) grew to the point I wrote a novel based on another French woman I met 40 years later (born on the last day of WWI but lived through the horrors of WWII). But, alas, my ability to speak French has not followed me. I must admit I’m terrified to ask a question in French because I wouldn’t really understand the answer. I suppose immersion is the only answer. Thank you, Marianne, for this piece and for reminding me of my love of language (although not my proficiency).

    • mcbohr August 31, 2015 at 7:10 pm

      Thanks so much for your reply, Carole. As you say, learning a new language has to be via immersion or as an obsession to learn it well. The only way we really become comfortable speaking is to try. We all make mistakes when speaking another language but we have to throw away our egos and just dive in. No one will fault us for trying.

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