In my early teens, I lived in a French-speaking country and was on my way to becoming fluent in the language. Then I went back home and the learning stopped. It is now time to take care of the unfinished business – all thanks to travel.
A few weeks ago, my mom scanned old family photos from Oran, Algeria and emailed them to me. As I looked through the album, I remembered my time at Lycée Pasteur: the first day of classes (Bonjour, je m’appelle Pola was about the only thing I could say), making friends with a Bulgarian girl (she too was a new student), and reading Asterix comics in the library.
Months went by and my French was gradually improving. When I was not at school, my parents and I would explore the city: shop at the nearby souk, go out for lemon ice cream (only the flavor of Italian gelato can compare), or drive up to Fort Santa Cruz for city views. Before I knew it, the school year was coming to an end and my family was making arrangements to stay in Algeria longer.
Then our plans were suddenly interrupted.
I got to school one day and saw military personnel guarding the gate. I didn’t realize it yet, but it was the beginning of the Algerian Civil War. Tense street demonstrations became commonplace and it no longer felt safe to go about our daily routine. A few weeks later we were back in Poland.
The conflict took the lives of tens of thousands of people, including foreigners. I always wondered what happened to my teacher and classmates, and hoped they got out in time.
After the summer break, I found out that my school offered French classes. I continued to learn the language for several semesters, until graduation. Who knew at the time that I wouldn’t open a French book again for over a decade?
My foreign language options in high school included only German and English. As I concentrated on those two, French was no longer in the picture. I became especially interested in English and would eventually go on to get a Bachelor’s degree in English Philology. While preparing for my university entrance exams, I took private lessons and made friends with a handful of native speakers from the USA. One of them is now nicknamed “Mr. Jetting Around…”
EXPAT ONCE AGAIN
When we moved to Chicago, I focused on getting more education and establishing my professional life. Learning another language was not a priority. But living in a city with a large Latin American population, I was exposed to Spanish on a regular basis.
At some point a co-worker got me into salsa dancing, then I started listening to Latin music (and trying to understand the lyrics), plus I wanted to travel to South America. Spanish classes followed. Once again, it seemed like French didn’t stand a chance. Except this time Paris happened.
PARIS MON AMOUR
Before traveling to La Ville-Lumière, I expected to enjoy it, not develop a slight obsession… Initially I thought the city was nice, but no different from other European capitals. That impression only lasted until my first visit to a Parisian café.
The coffee I ordered – café crème – must have been the best I’d ever tried. I spent the rest of the trip exploring coffee shops in various neighborhoods. The more time I sat around sipping coffee and people-watching, the more I felt connected to the city. I began to feel its unique vibe and even started to imagine what it would be like to live there. Those thoughts didn’t stop when I returned home.
My affinity for Paris has resulted in two more trips, each a reminder of my unfinished French language education. While I remembered enough to order food or take the subway, I wanted to be able to chat with locals, whether touring gypsy jazz clubs or attending soccer games. I needed more lessons.
BACK TO SCHOOL
One day, I shared thoughts about learning French again with my mom. We ended up reminiscing about Algeria and Lycée Pasteur, and she promised to send my old notebook and report cards. As I opened the package, I saw a note from my former teacher that said “Il faut persévérer en français” (“You should continue with French”). That struck a chord and led me to sign up for classes in Chicago.
This time, I’m not quitting.
About the Author (Author Profile)Pola Henderson is the founder and editor of Jetting Around. She grew up in Krakow, Poland, lived in North Africa, and has called Chicago home since 2002. Traveling internationally has been a part of her life since she was 3 years old. When she isn't busy running her communications company, Pola ventures out to explore cities and their culture. View more...
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