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.