Parlez-Vous Français?

Français? Hey, I was absolutely the worst in my high school French classes and the only one in our senior year of 4th year French to get a “C”. Of course, my general hate of high school and lack of respect for anything connected with it played a great role.  I regret that and had to spend a lot of time later in life making up for my lack of study. I wonder whether anyone else from our senior class who can speak French today, but I have no way of knowing this, since I don’t have contact with most of my former classmates. I had contact for a short time via Facebook, but since I was not really friends with most of them and have little in common now, I “unfriended” most but not all of them and then left Facebook all together.

I was so poorly prepared for college that I was put on probation due to poor grades after my freshman year, and I did not even sign up for French my first semester. However, my love of literature and some great teachers and professors in college inspired me to learn the language. Thanks to inspiring professors and interesting courses, I graduated with distinction and received almost straight A’s the last two years. The most enlightening moment came when Jonathan Bothelo (hope I remember the spelling of his name correctly; he was suffering from a rare bone disease with a prognosis of a short life: how unfair life can be!), the most inspiring teacher I ever had, asked us to write a short essay stating which writer Corneille, Moliere or Racine was more relevant to our lives. After we submitted our essays, he explained why each of them was very relevant in a different way, and I learned to appreciate literature for more than just fun reading. When I had asked the same question in my senior English class about Beowulf, the teacher became so annoyed that she had me transferred to another class.

Another couple of inspiring professors, Richard Bjornson and Emile Snyder stimulated my interest for African literature in general, and I wrote my Masters’ thesis about French-African short stories (“nouvelles”) with a translation of half of Jean-Baptiste Tati-Loutard’s Chroniques Congolaises. (and Dick Bjornson introduced me to picaresque novels, Lazarillo de Tormes becoming one of my favorite books and the picaro a “role model” for my best attempt at writing a novel.)

Emile fled Paris shortly before the Second World War and immigrated to the USA. He joined the navy and fought in the war, but he also learned his English there. After the war, his father, who was a staid New England gentleman, was rather shocked at Emile’s English.

Emile knew almost every contemporary African writer, and he always had a great anecdote when one was mentioned: “Quand je l’ai rencontré, …” One of my favorite stories that he told was when a friend in Africa asked him whether he wanted to visit a shaman. Emile was a 100%-atheist, but he said sure, that would be a good experience. The shaman first told him that he came from far away; ha, ha, a white man in Africa. Then he told him that he was married and had two kids. Okay, nothing out of the ordinary for a middle-aged American. But then he went on to tell Emile things about his life that he could not possible have known. Emile was flabbergasted and unable to explain/understand how the shaman knew all these things.

When I first went to Europe, my dream was to live in France, then maybe Italy or Spain. I never considered Germany as more than a place for a short stay, to learn German quickly and get out. Despite auditing three semesters of German at the university and studying it very hard in the process, I knew little of place other than what I had learned watching “Hogan’s Heroes”: the cold, calculating SS man, the fat, dumb Bavarian sergeant, the hapless commander, etc. I had to learn German and French to continue my studies in comparative literature, and a professor advised me if Germany, then Freiburg. I arrived on a cold, rainy November day, two weeks after Nixon was reelected, and joked that was the reason I had left the States. By chance, one of my roommates in my senior year was spending his junior year in Freiburg, so I immediately had contacts. Those were the days when men with long hair immediately felt and established a rapport, and I had a nice group of friends, most of them German. Germany was still handing out work permits to anyone who came, and I soon got a job as cook and dishwasher in a Mexican restaurant run by three ex-GIs. They were lousy businessmen and took a lot of money out of the till to buy fancy cars and the like. We didn’t get along, and I was fired after a few months (later discovering that they had not paid any social security or health insurance premiums for me), but I did meet my future girlfriend and wife there when she came with a lot of friends one evening.

After approx. 1 ½ years in Germany, I finally made it to France. A bunch of friends drove to Spain for a week, and they let me out on the way back. I had a contact next Toulouse, wine farmers who rented a room to tourists in the summer, but I left after three days, since it was too isolated and I was not getting any chance to practice French. I hitched to Montpellier, found a bar where a lot of long-hairs were hanging out and asked for a place to crash. I was directed to Gilbert, who had rented a house with some friends 25 km north of the city in St. Martin de Londres. I wound up staying there four months, four months of struggling with my first French phrases. Despite four years of high school French and three years of studying it at the university, I could barely utter a phrase, and my high school French was of little use, since they spoke a lot of slang. It was a real hippie commune with lots of hashish smoking plus French wine. I hitched into Montpellier a few times a week, but most of the time I was just reading French books and trying to understand and participate in conversations. Ah Gilbert, I would love to meet you again, but we have long since lost contact. I also became close to an Algerian, who was picking fruit in the area. Such a nice, gentle person with such a hard fate. But in the days before the internet, it was difficult to keep in touch (and even after the arrival of the Internet!).

After that, I decided that I really needed some proper instruction and enrolled in a course at the Sorbonne for a semester. I had a room on the 7th floor in the 7th arrondissement with a great view of the Eifel Tower. I originally though it quite ugly, but grew to love it looking out of my window in a wine-induced stupor many an evening.


I wound up hanging out with an American, Glen, who was a ladies’ man par excellence. And I wound up studying less and missing morning lectures, spending evening drinking wine along the Seine. Out of money and with no chance of work, I had to leave.

A couple of years later, I wanted to go to France and work on my French before I started graduate school in the fall. A friend of a friend was driving to Aix for the same reason, so I went along. I met Dominique there somehow. He and his girlfriend shared a house in the country, and I asked them if I could put my tent next to it and share kitchen and bathroom. Consequently, began a friendship of many years, one of those friends, whom even if you don’t see him for years, everything is as it used to be as soon as you are together again.

I thought I was prepared to be a bit more serious in life and entered the Master’s degree program in comparative literature at Indiana University. I loved discussing and debating in classes and had a couple of inspiring professors, but realized that if I wanted to pursue my goal of becoming a professor, I would have to spend most of my life in library. So it was back to Germany after two years where I got a few part-time jobs teaching English and wrote my Master’s thesis. I sent the completed thesis to my professor before leaving for our trip through Latin America, but when I visited him after the trip and on the way back to Germany, he asked: “What thesis?” But then he remembered that I had sent it to him, and he rummaged through his papers until he found it. Two of the other professors who had agreed to be on the examining committee two years previously claimed that they had only said they would consider it and had not committed themselves. Then they disputed what we had agreed upon (one section comparing short stories, novellas, short novels, etc.) and said they did not want such again. Another professor skimmed my translation of French-African stories and complained that it was bad, although he did not compare it with the original. I had a bit of smug satisfaction several years later when his translation of a German book was criticized in the NY Times several years later.

So it was back to the drawing boards, and I redid the whole thing once back in Germany and resubmitted it. This time, the professor in charge of everything became seriously ill and was in a hospital for more than a year, so it was not until 1985 that I finally was awarded the degree. My professor said he knew a good typist at school, who would type in it the correct format for me, and I duly contracted her. She spelled my name wrong on the title page and left out a couple of pages I translated, but somehow it got accepted.

I couple of years ago, I had the urge to spend some time in southern France again and thought maybe I could use some of the time for education pursuits. Actually, I didn’t necessarily need a refresher course in French, but my grammar has become a bit rusty, and I often have to look up legal and technical terms when translating. However, my main reason for going to Aix-en-Provence this time was to visit Dominique, who shared his house with me for four months almost 40 years ago. His girlfriend of that time, who was living in the States in the meantime, also promised to try and come, so that we could have a reunion. Unfortunately, she was not able to come, but I was still greatly looking forward to seeing Dominique for two weeks.



And so to France to visit Dominique, relive old memories and create new ones as well as to practice my hobby of language learning in the meantime.

Dominique and his girlfriend J were invited to friends’ for dinner parties several times the first week, and they took me along. Lots of very friendly people, and I got to practice French all evening, although I was disappointed that there were so many things that I did not understand when everyone was speaking. I had sorely overestimated my ability. There was always far too much to eat, and it took a couple of days for me to learn to control myself, especially with the fantastic choice of cheese at the end of each meal. Each time we arrived at one of their friends, I was surprised that people just greeted and talked with each other for quite a long time without any drinks being offered. Where I live, that is the first thing done when friends arrive. However, the French were in no hurry and loved talking and catching up with friends that had perhaps not seen for a while. There were plenty of drinks, just in a different rhythm. I also had to get used to kissing the men on both cheeks in addition to the women on being introduced or just greeting or upon taking leave.



Actually, it is not always fun taking a language class in a foreign country, and a lot depends on the people you meet. There are many times when you (i.e., I) are just lonely and realize how much I miss my partner and friends at home, but that is part of the reason for going. If I am always at home, I often lose consciousness of how much such people mean to me.

Dominique’s house had changed a lot from back in 1977. There was just an outhouse at that time, no shower or bath, just a water tap where we could wash. There were no trees around the house, and it was surrounded by fields of wheat. Now it was hidden behind numerous trees, including fig, apricot and peach trees. There was a large kitchen and a bathroom with bathtub and shower on the second floor. He had even built a small cabin behind the house, two floors, small bedroom upstairs and a toilet downstairs (plans were to refurbish it into a real bathroom). Originally, his girlfriend of that time had hoped to come at the same time as me, so that we could have had a reunion, which unfortunately did not work out. I was able to get her on Skype, but had not realized that she and Dominique had not seen each other for more than 15 years. It was rather strange for both of them.


Dominique’s house


The small abode behind his house where I slept.

Dominque lent me a car, and I drove to the nearest village every morning to take a bus to Aix and school. One of my teachers got on the same bus at a later stop every morning, and I believe she was initially afraid that I would sit next to her and bother her, since she had to put up with students all day. But I got the hint, and usually would just listen to a Chinese lesson on my smartphone during the ½ hour ride each morning.

I was used to small language classes from Spain and China, but there were 10 of us in the morning classes. It took me a while to remember that had also been the situation when I studied in Paris long ago. By the end of the first week, I became annoyed by the friendly chatter in the class and longed for having some grammar integrated into the lessons, so that I could learn something specific.  My teacher realized this and explained that is practically impossible to fulfill all the wishes of 10 students with different backgrounds and varying degrees of ability, and I had to agree.

Language classes can be such fun, and you get to know lots of people from all over. However, despite my resolve to cultivate contacts with people in the class, I soon became bored with what most of them had to say. There was an older Australian woman, who frequently talked about her ukulele, an instrument for which I have little respect (my first guitar teacher, a jazz guitarist, related how one evening his band was forced to back up a ukulele player and his female co-performer. The ukulele player had no idea what key he was playing him and told them the wrong one and put on a ridiculous performance overall. Since that time, I have considered—probably incorrectly—that it is a silly instrument that has nothing to do with good music, and this despite that fact that my jazz guitar teacher at the time also played one. After all, I had mentioned that I play flamenco guitar during introductions, but then never mentioned it again, since I knew that no of the others were interested in that. There was a Romanian woman suffering from a terrible complex about her nationality and who constantly reiterated that she lived in Germany and had nothing to do with her native country, certainly due to the fact that many Romanian women work in the West as prostitutes and she feared that people would think that she was also one. She also spoke constantly, especially when she had nothing to say, which was most of the time. Most of the others in the classes were nice people, and I was angry with myself for being so arrogant, but I just had little in common with them. There was a very young Canadian woman full of life, whose youth was refreshing and whose parents came originally from Hong Kong, and we were able to talk about China. There was even a woman from China, who was studying at Vassar, apparently very intelligent, but her spoken French was so poor that it was difficult to have longer discussions. And then a nice young guy full of idealism, who was part Ecuadorian, with whom I could talk about that country. A couple of Dutch teachers, a couple of Spanish teachers, but none of them had much opportunity to speak French outside of class, since they had no acquaintances there and consequently just wanted to say anything to practice their oral skills. They all spoke French more slowly than I did, and I wrongly assumed that my French was better as a result. However, when it came to understanding the words in videos and grammar, I had to admit that many of them were better than I.


Our afternoon French class with our “très jolie professor” on the left (afternoon classes were smaller, and fewer people took them)


D & J had to leave unexpectedly to attend a funeral in northern France, so I was alone at the house the first Sunday. I didn’t trust myself to drive very far, since there was a lot of traffic and I did not know my way around at all. There were not many buses Sunday, the last one back at 5 p.m., so I could not visit Marseille as I would have liked to. I went to Aix and visited the Gaumont Museum, a nice old “hotel particulier”, for which Aix is famous. They are not hotels, but private residences. The museum had opened in this “hotel” recently, and a couple of my teachers had recommended it. Nice exhibition by Caneletto, and I wondered whether his name had anything to do with the many canals of Venice, which he had painted. The restaurant appeared a bit too elegant for me, and it would have only been gone with a glass of wine, which would have rendered me half-unconscious in the heat. So it was another one of those lonely days in a foreign city, and the heat soon drove me back to a bus stop and the countryside for a long siesta.

My expectations for improving my French were exaggerated, but I was also a bit disappointed the first week, because too much time was spent having each student recount what he or she had done the previous evening. The second week, we had more grammar integrated into the class, and I recalled my looking forward to meeting different people in my classes and taking advantage of our differences to learn new things. The teacher also asked me to be a bit careful with jokes with respect to the older Australian woman, and jokes spoken at the wrong time and wrong occasion involving the wrong person are certainly one of my grave faults.

The second week was also nice in the respect that the woman, where I had my coffee and croissant in the morning, recognized me and simply asked “Comme d’habitude?” without my having to place an order. The afternoon classes were much more enjoyable without the Romanian and her constant talking and interrupting. With the other students, it was simply a matter of asking them about things they had mentioned and consequently displaying interest in their persons.

Classes ended Friday noon with an aperitif and class photos. I was a bit embarrassed when one of my teachers said she really enjoyed having people like me in her class who told a lot of jokes and that she thought I was a good person, but of course it made me feel good too. I only exchanged email addresses with two of the young people in the class, with whom I had gotten along with best, although I was the oldest person in the class. One of them even thanked me for all he had learned from me, but I have no idea what that might have been except to enjoy the classes. I attribute such feelings to my immature behavior at times.

Would have liked to visit Marseille and its new museum and go to the beach once, but my classes just finished too late in the day. I had hoped to be able to do that the second Saturday there, but at the end of a nice evening with friends Friday evening, J suddenly had what was apparently a minor heart attack. I felt helpless, but the others reacted quickly, got her to lie down and called for an emergency doctor, who arrived 20 minutes later along with an assistant and six firemen, who carried her to an ambulance. Despite a general impression of chaos at the house, the others knew exactly what to do, had the emergency number to call immediately and arranged to go with D to the hospital. Wish I were so competent in such situations! Fortunately, the doctor said her body functions tested normal, but that was the end of festivities.


Last evening and good-bye party

I changed my train reservation from Sunday to Saturday and headed back home. A couple of friends were kind enough to drive ½ hour to where I was staying and then drive another ½ hour to take me to the train station.

On the way, we talked about the situation of the environment and the French reaction, which they deplored, citing centralization in France as one of the main obstacles. The woman had been a physical therapist, but had stopped and was making furniture from discarded cardboard packaging. She even created chairs stable enough for people to sit on, which I would have loved to see. Some people are just so creative!

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