Before I lead you down a lavender path into thinking things are all rosemary, antique water pumps, cobblestones and charming chapels when you move often and internationally, (and certainly before I reveal who the famous French writer was who lived in our neighborhood chateau), I have a story about the realities of this life.
Luc, now twelve, was then five. He had attended two years of bilingual preschool in Paris, and the next day, for first grade, he was joining his big brother at the French elementary school, E.A.B. in the Parc Monceau where Dalton had already attended two years.
At dinner the evening before his first day of this French immersion school, I’d noticed how pasty Luc looked, a bit too calm in the pupils behind his red Harry Potter glasses. Fork-fiddling with his food. Unable to drink much.
Sip-sip. Long breath in. Sip-sip. Longer breath out.
Head titled. Like he had the weight of the world on one bony shoulder.
I went into his room that night to nuzzle up to his freshly bathed body and stroke his slick blonde bangs.
“How things, Luc?”
It was dark where I knelt next to him in that bottom bunk so all I could make out was the general lumpiness of a checkered cotton duvet.
“Hm?” a voice came from under lots of feathers.
“You there? You alright?”
(Muffled breathing sound.)
I burrowed and found a forehead. I smoothed my long fingers across it.
“Sick, sweetie? Fever?”
“Air will help, honey,” and I drew back the comforter to see his profile. Nose like a ski jump. Pronounced pout. Delicate neck. “Okay, there you go. So. . .hon. . . you nervous?”
“Uh-huh.” There was a tremolo in his voice that sent a ripple of chilled bitter lemon through my senses.
“For. . .?”
Aw, c’mon. I knew full well that he was nervous. And I knew what for. Although he was functional in French — could recite Victor Hugo poetry and sing French ditties at the top of his lungs, even had a girlfriend Jasmine with whom he managed quite well in her tongue — up till then he’d been in a cozy environment with multiple nationalities, everyone buffering everyone else’s language acquisition. He hadn’t yet been in a classroom where everyone else was French and where all the instruction –– reading, math, history, graphisme — was exclusively in French.
Where he might not be able to figure things out. Where he might be mortified and, where he might, oh maybe, wet his pants.
In terror. In front. Of everyone.
What he was having was a typical fit of language panic, I recognized the signs. And my Empathy-Mometer shot clean through the ceiling. How well I knew the dread.
“Well. . .” he shifted in bed, turning toward me. We were nearly touching noses. “What if someone says something to me tomorrow?”
“Okay. . .”
“A lot of something.”
“Right. . .”
“A big sentence, Mom.”
“I know. Big.”
“All in French. In front of the class. And I don’t understand all of it. What if there’s just this one word. . .and I don’t. . .get it?”
It made me so nervous for him, had I not already been on my knees, they would have buckled right then and there.
I pulled out my wise woman hat and tugged it down tight over my anxiety.
“Well, Luc, know what? You just say this one thing. . .”
I took his polished cheeks in my hands and looked (like a wise woman) into his eyes. Were his the teary ones? Or were those mine?
“Kay, you listening?”
“Yuh. . .”
“You say these words nice and loud: Je. Suis. Desolé. Mais. Je. Ne. Comprends. Pas.”
(Which, roughly, is “Zhe swee dezolay, may zhe nuh comprohn pah.” Very roughly. And it means, “Sorry, but I don’t get it.” Also roughly.)
Luc looked right through to the exit side of my irises.
“But I know how to say that already.”
“I know, I know. But you have to have it right here,” I pointed to my temple, “ready to pull out of this little brain pocket. It will protect you. Like a shield.”
“Yup. Easy, right?” (I felt so incredibly reassured by myself.) “So, Luc, let’s do it together, kay sweetie?”
We cleared our throats and entered on the self same pitch:
“Je suis desolé, mais je ne comprends pas.”
Mom and son, nose to nose, in the dark.
“Je suis desolé, mais je ne comprends pas.”
Chanting our fear away.
“Je suis desolé, mais je ne comprends pas!”
We added a rhumba beat this time:
“Je suis desolé, cha! Mais je ne comprends pa, cha!.”
Chanting and rhumba-ing our fear right out the door of the universe.
“Je suis desolé, mais je ne comprends pas! Woo-hoo!! Now give me a big kiss!”
He froze stiff, “NO WAY am I saying THAT!”
Luc, two years later, spoke such fluidly effortless French, I was sickened to leave Paris for fear of his losing that gift. But we headed off to Munich. Where he had to learn German. But he did so quickly. So quickly, in fact, that German teacher bumped him up a class.
But just as he was growing confident in that language, we had to leave there.
To launch into Mandarin in Singapore.
Only to return two years later to Frenchland.
And where, do you think, is Luc’s French now?
The morning I took the village walk you’ve now taken with me, Luc wanted to go along on his trontinette, which in the U.S., I think, is a razor scooter. At twelve, he’s searching for independence and responsibility. And at this point I’m anticipating school starting the first week of September with a plunge back into French. I’ll plot these little simple errands to ease him back into interacting daily in French. It’s a benign stealth maneuver I always have on my mind.
So I give him a wad of Swiss francs and tell him to whizz across the square to the épicerie (corner grocer) and pick up some things to bring home.
“And please see if they have a chunk of Parmesan cheese,” I tell him as I rehearse with him, just in case, things he will say to the grocer. “I’m making bruschetta, [one of his favorite dishes] for dinner. We’ll put slices of Parmesan on top.”
A half hour later we went home. Or actually, I ran home, camera thumping on my sternum, trailing him as he raced past on the trotinette, head down, face unrecognizably grim, strange gasping sounds coming from his mouth.
“Luc? Luc, Luc! Open up for me!”
There were sobbing and punching sounds coming from behind his bedroom door.
“Luc?! What on earth happened?! Listen, open up right this minute, son.”
Punch. Grunt. Muffled ugh, ugh, ugh.
The door flew open, then Luc dove head first back onto his red bean bag chair. The fabric was deep burgundy-black, a bruised abrasion, everywhere his crying face had been buried.
Seems he’d asked correctly for du fromage Parmesan. But when the store clerk asked if he wanted it râpé, (pronounced, “rappay”, and means “grated”), Luc didn’t know what that word meant because he’d forgotten correct Parmesan terminology over five years. So he’d understood râpé to mean “wrapped.” Which makes perfect sense. Obviously.
So did the boy want his cheese wrapped?
Oui, oui, Monsieur.
But when the grocer then directed Luc to little plastic pouches of pre-grated Parmesan (instead of a chunk), Luc told him, non, non, non, Monsieur, he wanted a big piece, un gros morceau, as Luc showed with his hands just like he and I had practiced.
But the grocer could go ahead and râpé it, Luc said, thinking he was telling the grocer to wrap (or wrappay) it.
Which led, as you might imagine, to a back and forth between the grocer and the twelve-year-old scooter boy, which grew into a lively community debate as another waiting customer suggested the boy on the scooter wanted sliced, and another said no, that one would never râpé Parmesan beforehand, then another added that you really shouldn’t wrap un Parmesan râpé.
Ah, I could envision the scene. My Luc, pinned in the middle, his skinny arms stiff at his sides, his mind whirring for words, the adults trying to help but getting nowhere, no one understanding what it is the boy with flushed cheeks wants, Luc just wanting to manage one simple hunk of cheese to prove his manhood and make his Mom proud. And make his favorite dish.
So he fishes out of a deep pocket in his cerebellum the best retort he can muster:
“Je suis desolé. . . mais je ne comprends pas.”
Which got him two pouches of râpé cheese. For which he paid, hands sweaty and shaking.
Then he took off, embarrassment drizzling in sweat rivers down all his limbs, trotting as absolutely quickly as his trotinette was capable of going.
Your common case of language panic.
Oh, boy. How I have been there.
I tried minimizing the ordeal, handled it with kidding gloves, so to speak, and after some time — some hours — brought the old Luc back to life.
We decided that evening to make pesto instead of bruschetta ,which, hey, just happens to require Parmesan rapé. While we tooled away in the kitchen, I told Luc he was pretty lucky the grocer hadn’t pulled out a pen and paper to try writing the words out.
Now that might have been really disturbing, dontcha think? What kind of cheese is that?
Then I told story after story after painful and mortifying story of my own history of language panic. Those stories began when I was just a year older than Luc, and lived in Salzburg at 13. My preteen, who’s got the mistaken impression that his Mom just somehow sprouted these languages she speaks out of thin air, seemed to love knowing how often and thoroughly she’d been humiliated by language, and how often that humiliation was in front of a big, glaring, native audience. How often she punched things and wept.
Some of these moments were just embarrassing. Others, indecent. Others, insulting, Still others, full-on dangerous.
As you might expect, many happened in grocery stores, much like Luc’s Parmesan crucible. But others (and this is where language panic reaches a whole new pitch) happened in doctor’s offices. Or in a formal dinner at an Embassy. Or in front of hundreds on the concert stage. Or on the telephone with the electrician. When I had a serious car accident. While standing ankle deep in gushing water as my basement flooded. While my child writhed in pain on an emergency room floor. During childbirth. And, most incriminating of all, in an aisle of IKEA.
“Luc, honey,” I told him as we served up our pesto, laughing now, “I’ve had so many experiences like yours today, I could write a book!”
“But. . .I thought you already have.”
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.