Tag Archives: living in France

Why I Love France – Chapter 4

Quite simply, because in France, the French people speak French.

Epiphany, right?

A surprising enough one for me, however, because my original encounters with the French language never led me to suspect that one day I might happily be scrutinizing the cadences of French Romantic poetry or filling notebooks with phrases I caught on the streets of Paris.

My parents liked certain French singers and so I grew up exposed to Georges Brassens (thank goodness I never understood his lyrics until I reached 20+) and Nina Mouskouri (I always thought she was a bit too dramatic, even when I had no clue what she was singing. I appreciate her a bit more 20 years later). I enjoyed the music playing in the background, although all of Brassens sounded much the same to me, but I was hard-pressed to see a link between the music and the irregular verb forms we started studying at the age of 10.

Many long and grammar-filled years later, I’ve come to terms with the French language. I like it. A lot. Heck, now I can even write a first sentence like I just did and mean every word of it.

What happened along the way?

I wish I could say I fell in love with the drama of the songs of Edith Piaf, but unfortunately, I was marked by the heyday of “My Heart Will Go On” and if I listened to anything foreign during my teen years, it was Celine Dion. I wish I could say I was swept away by the avantgarde atmosphere and cries of artists in Montmartre, but I was only 14, and rather scared that I didn’t understand what they wanted. I wish I could say I was introduced to the beauty of the ‘language of love’ by a fair-haired French boy, but in reality my teachers were middle-aged and either possessed of bushy beards or completely bald.

What actually happened to me when I least expected it was the language itself. Hours and hours of good, old-fashioned drills on the difference between imparfait and passe compose, daily mind games trying to figure out why the subjonctif is used after il semble que (‘it seems that’) but not after il me semble que (‘it seems to me that’) – I woke up one day to realize that French had taken me hostage. Resistance was, as they so wisely say, futile.

But captivity has been sweet, after the initial growing pains. French is, after all, the language of diplomacy, so no wonder it has subtly insinuated itself into my life, and that of many others, in spite of grammatical complexity and other seemingly unconquerable obstacles.

The grammar, it is true, is quite intricate, but behind it stands French logic, which is only seemingly elusive. True French pronunciation is unattainable for mere (non-French) mortals, but the rules governing how words should be read and spoken are at least consistent – nothing like the infernal ‘gh’ in English (Why “though” but “rough”? What about “high”?).

Somehow, even curses in French don’t seem terribly vulgar to me, because they don’t ‘sound’ vulgar. They sound like music (sometimes crappy pop music of the 1980s, but music nonetheless). I suppose this is why I am more comfortable cussing in French than in English (this could also be due to the rather unrefined vocabulary of a very vocal but passionate and inspiring university professor in Montpellier, who liberally sparkled her speech with… well, actually, I’ll treat that subject in a different post). To my mind, it somehow sounds more refined and less unladylike. An illusion, doubtless.

But it is precisely illusions, beautiful illusions, that French fosters, with its very sound. Its lilt makes it the language of love. Frenchmen know that they are safe proffering pick-up lines which would sound ridiculous in Anglo-Saxon parlance; the French gentleness of pronunciation will make any foreign mademoiselle swoon and think that she is really charmante.

Complex bureaucratic procedures seem a lot more bearable when they are wrapped in elaborate but phonetically-pleasing sentences. Even signs in France are overwhelmingly polite – at the airport,  you might be told “merci de bien vouloir deposer vos affaires dans les bacs mis a votre disposition” (in rough translation – “We thank you for wanting to put your things in the boxes at your disposal”) as opposed to: “Put all objects in this box”. I’ve been moved to tears by signs in French trains asking me to have the niceness not to lean too many of my body parts out of the window, or to be so kind as to not open the door while the train is in motion. (In Poland we tend to give orders: “Don’t stick your head out! Don’t open the door!”)

The poetry, the music, the diplomacy, the everlasting grandeur right next to the fleeting illusions – this is, for me, what French is.

What is it for you?

One of my favorite French songs.