Back to school: French

| December 15, 2013 More

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.

Lycée Pasteur Oran

At Lycée Pasteur in Oran, Algeria – my first French school
On the right: Phillippe, the teacher

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.


Little JA on Murdjajo Hill in Oran – I think this is how I got to like views from above

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…”


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.


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.

Paris cafe

I’m a little obsessed with Paris, and it all started with… a cup of café crème

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.

Luxembourg Gardens

Maybe I’ll live in Paris someday, maybe I’ll just keep visiting. Either way, it’s the reason I’m learning French again.


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.

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Category: STORIES


About the Author (Author Profile)

Pola Henderson is a travel writer, city explorer, expat, and event host. Traveling has been a part of her life since she was three. Pola grew up in Krakow, lived in Chicago for many years and is currently based in Paris, where she teaches Business English.

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Sites That Link to this Post

  1. This Week’s Best | December 20, 2013
  2. Learning French: Let's Talk Francais | November 6, 2014
  3. Birthday weekend in Paris | April 26, 2015
  4. Expat Life Part Deux: Moving to Paris - Jetting Around | February 20, 2017
  1. avatar Russell says:

    Love this, Pola, because it resonates with my own childhood and similar reasons for discontinuing my study (and love) of French. I keep on thinking about returning to it and it surely needs to happen sooner rather than later. Btw, little JA is too cute ;)

  2. wow, what a beginning to your lessons on french and great photos of you from your childhood…..I hope you not only learn the language, but get the chance to return to Algeria and meet some of your old classmates (or at least visit the school)again.. bonne chance, Craig

  3. Those are great childhood experiences. I’m jealous of children from other countries who get a broad foreign language education. I took two years of Spanish in high school and four semesters in university. But the way it was taught I learned next to nothing. Good for you for getting back into French.

    • Hi Lance. I hear you about not learning languages successfully in school… Too much focus on textbook exercises, not enough on communicating in real-life situations. I’m a former ESL teacher and could talk for hours about the subject! :) Anyway, I’m grateful to my parents for giving me such amazing childhood memories. Thanks for reading.

  4. avatar Jared says:

    What a great story Pola! I’ve found I have the same connection to Mandarin. I lived in Taiwan for a year when I was 5 years old. I had a 5 year old’s fluency, and then after leaving, really never did anything with the language, although I’ve had a couple strange encounters with it, and still remember random words like gum, ice cream, you’re a bad kid, etc.

    Be sure to share more as you progress!

    • Hi Jared. I had to laugh at “you’re a bad kid!” Amazing what phrases we pick up in foreign languages, isn’t it? Thanks for checking out the story – maybe one day I’ll be able to write a post in French… :)

  5. avatar Mary Anne says:

    Very jealous that you learned at such a young age. I am just starting to learn another language. It’s so hard now.

    • Kids just pick up so quickly, don’t they? But even if it’s harder as we get older, I believe it’s never too late to start learning a language. Good luck with your studies, Mary Anne! :)

  6. never knew this about you, pola! you’re a lady full of surprises!

    so glad to hear you’re continuing your french studies. one of my biggest regrets is not keeping up with it after i left france! xo, the wino

  7. avatar lola says:

    good for you Pola. i love French and would love to be able to speak it. i just wish i had more time to add that to my list of things to do.

  8. avatar Agness says:

    I have the same feelings about Prague, so I can totally relate to this post.

  9. avatar Aggy says:

    What a sweet story Pola! Yes you definitely should learn French, I have struggled with French (even if I’ve lived in France for a year!) but I think it’s very rewarding once you get to speak the language. Plus, it’s a very sexy language.
    Bon chance Pola!

  10. avatar Francesca says:

    Yay!! The last few lines gave me the chills. So happy for you, that you’re continuing your French education. I have an affinity for languages, too, and would love to begin learning another.

    Related: OMG look at little Pola! Sassy even back then ;-)

  11. avatar Karl says:

    Vintage! Love the classics :) Everything could still be in style today. Except the teachers shorts… lol

  12. avatar Aiko says:

    This post has made me want to learn French again… but then there are so many other languages I wish I could speak. The dilemma of having an affinity for languages…

    Bonne chance!

    • Hi Aiko. I see what you mean! I am on a Romance language kick and while I’m focused on Spanish and French, somehow Italian and even Portuguese have crept into my life… Whatever language you choose to learn, good luck too! :)

  13. This really spoke to me. My father is Acadian and grew up in a Francophone region, not learning English until he was an adult. Unfortunately, French wasn’t a significant part of my upbringing. I did well at school and my father would help me with homework, but that’s no replacement to immersion, for growing up in a bilingual home. Now that I live in Ottawa, the seat of the bilingual Canadian government, my father is always asking why I don’t have a fancy government job. Um, because I’m not bilingual! My recent trip to Paris and Brussels has me motivated to learn more!

  14. avatar Romy Mlinzk says:

    Wow. You were able to go to Algeria as a kid? This was somehow a privilege for a polish family?! In the GDR I was not allowed to go to such countries (or only with a lot of money and relationships to influencial people). Sounds like an awesome experience and I definitely need to improve my French (as well as my English. ;) ).
    Bon chance!

    • Hi Romy. This was after the Iron Curtain and I remember that there was a company that recruited engineers to work abroad. I definitely feel grateful that I got to travel to a place like that. Unforgettable.

  15. avatar lorie says:

    you were a pretty girl thanks for sharing those pictures you always take great pictures

  16. I have always wanted to learn French but found it really difficult – Perhaps I should try again!

  17. Nice to read about your school days in Algeria. It is sad that your stay was interrupted for war — there are always casualties beyond those fighting. Glad that you got back into your French studies. I make well-intentioned attempts to resume the French studies I had in high school (long, long, time ago!) but have never been able to spend the time needed. I always feel self-conscious about that I only speak “un peu français” and would love to improve before I go back next time.

  18. avatar Lucy says:

    Love this – I learnt French at school and could speak it fairly well at 18 but it’s almost all forgotten now and I tend to make excuses not to speak it at all. But I really should try and learn again as I go to France a lot and used to really enjoy it, so I have found somewhere near me that does conversation classes and will give it a go!

  19. I have similar regrets with Swedish language, which I learnt at school, but let myself to forget it and now I can hardly say anything. I always think of re-learning it, but there are just so many other languages that I should learn too so it doesn’t seem possible right now.

    By the way, French is one of those languages that I’m trying to learn, since all countries surrounding my current home country are French speaking!

    I truly enjoyed your post, hope you will return to Algeria one day :)

    • Thanks for the comment, I really enjoyed it! I too hope that I’ll get to see Algeria again – it would be so interesting to go back to some of the places I remember and see what’s changed. And good luck with French!

  20. Ive always wanted to learn french, I took several semesters while I was in school but I can barely remember any of it. Hopefully you ended up mastering the language!

  21. avatar Andrew says:

    How lovely that your mother still had that prescient note from your French teacher! Bonne chance!

  22. avatar samiya selim says:

    I love learning new languages! Especially love french and Italian as studied them and then was so much fun being able to practice when travelling in those countries. Great post on your own language journey :-)

  23. avatar Milosz Zak says:

    That’s exactly what I am missing here at home and in my job – that sort of immersion that let’s you jump over that last linguistic hurdle.

    • I hear you! I’d love to spend a few months in Paris and get my French to where it needs to be. For now, though, I should find a conversation group in my area. Good luck with your language learning too!