La Seine et Moi

Started back up with French again today.

You might be surprised that I stopped. My path to learning French has been full of these starts and steps and missteps though. But I found another online program called Ma France through the BBC, believe it or not, it’s totally free, and I’m trying it again.

(I use this one a lot too:

(sigh) Is there a prescribed path for doing this? Learning a language?  I wish I knew, because an awful lot of days I feel like I’m doing it all wrong.

falling flat

Like a lot of these on-line courses (I’ve tried Rosetta Stone and Tell Me More too), it is multi-pronged. Part of it focuses on grammar, but most of it is on listening comprehension and absorption. The idea with these courses is that simply memorizing grammar does not turn one into a speaker. (Undeniable for any of us that took a language they cannot use in high school, right?) The thinking goes, since the way children learn is by listening and absorbing the sound of a language, rather than the rules, it’s best to spend a lot of time listening to French and then trying to put it together afterwards, and the software does that by having you typically play a series of games, like matching words to pictures or having to complete sentences or even crosswords. You’ll have dialogue, and answer questions to test your comprehension.


A lot of the videos are about culture and life in France, too…even the last game I played, which was just a “complete-the-sentence” thing, was set up to have Cultural Significance. See, it was set up like a game of petanque, which is a sort of bocce-type game played in France with metal balls instead of clay, and a sweet underhanded backspin-inducing throw. Each ball had a word on it, and you had to “knock” them into the right order. If you do it right, Stéphane, my virtual French teacher, cries out, “Parfait!” (Perfect!) Stéphane is just so great, because when you do it wrong, he kind of tut-tuts and then says, “Ahhhh, presque parfait!” which means, almost perfect. In the sense of not at all. Yay, self-esteem!

…Come to think of it, for a video trying to get you imbued in French culture, produced by the British Broadcasting Corporation, the focus on self-esteem seems curiously American.

Anyway: How did I start learning French?…in the beginning, I didn’t. M and I both worked as crew members on a cruise ship where we spoke English, and I guess it wasn’t until we both signed off and were travelling together that we started playing games in the car…not real games, but sort of Name that Noun, an iSpy where he gave me a bunch of words…and their genders, because everything in French has a gender and it’s not always intuitive. (The article for your, um, girl parts? “Le”. I KNOW, right?) I know there was one point where he took my iPod and entered in a bunch of basic sentences and short cuts to get to past tense and present tense…which still, to be honest, makes up the bulk of my daily French.

I hadn’t at that time decided to move to France. We both had other contracts on different ships lined up for the fall, so I think we had some sort of idea about meeting in the spring…somewhere. I think it’s pretty common on cruise ships for relationships to only last the duration of the contract for the simple reason that so many romances are cross-cultural and international, and there are a lot of complications with that. We both were so uncertain, and it wasn’t until the final push on the U.S leg of our roadtrip, after driving for over 16 hours straight, that M sort of struggled his way through asking me if I wanted to come back to France. Like, not for a vacation. To come to work with him, and get a flat and dishes and a gas bill and maybe a cat or something? And that I didn’t have to answer right away or anything.

I answered right away. OK, not really. In a split second, I weighed up two futures. I looked over at this completely beautiful awesome human being and I visualized a future where I lived in Corning, NY, or on a ship; where we just texted on Facebook and occasionally saw each other maybe once in a while, where the passion and need and love just sort of sizzled and sputtered and the time between emails grew longer and longer until they quietly stopped altogether in a little sigh of disappointment.  Then I thought about the other future, where we didn’t have to be apart, and I decided I was willing to do absolutely anything to have that future.

This little thought exercise took less than fifteen seconds.

I said, “Ok.”

That whole winter, as I finished my contract on the ship, I wrote him a letter in French every day. He’d correct them for me. I read lessons on line and downloaded verb lists and stuck them to my wall. I named all the furniture in my room with  Sticky notes and attempted watching all my movies in French. And then when I got back to France, I wanted to take French classes, but they wound up being really far outside our budget, so I tried online classes. And you know what happened?


Something like this. I got tired of French. I got tired of listening all the time and not understanding and being ignored and feeling flat and passive. I got tired of all the signs being incomprehensible, of having every interaction from going to the bakery to going to family dinners be just a soul-sucking exercise in isolation and humiliation, of having all the American TV shows overdubbed in the wrong voices. I got frustrated and I got tired and I would get home after a full day of focusing with my whole being and the last thing, the VERY last thing I wanted to do, was boot up the laptop and play French crosswords.

I guess since that time there have been starts and stops. I have picked up a lot by listening, and watching TV…but I completely lack any confidence to speak, because in the end, I still haven’t learned to put a sentence together. So when I do speak, I kind of frantically spew the few words I do know in some sort of rabies-inflected spasm, and hope that the listener picks up enough to get what I’m trying to say. It works great, if by “great” I mean, “frightening the French”, and in the end I’ve gotten really isolated. Seriously. I spend most of every day in silence or apologizing, and you can imagine what that starts to do to you after a while.

So. Back to the lessons. Back to Stéphane and sentences that start with “Qu’il y-a-t-il…?” and “qu’ouis-je…”  I need to treat this like my job. I need to be more disciplined. It’s the key to making my life work. I didn’t move to France because it was the easy thing to do. I moved here because suddenly I had to make a decision; and I decided that a future where I didn’t wake up every morning with M wasn’t something that was ever going to feel ok. Ever. Because it was the right thing to do, and the only thing to do, not the easy thing to do.

I get scared every day about losing myself. But I also feel that if I don’t put it on the line and at least try, then I don’t deserve him.


Last note: did this movie make it to the U.S? Did any of you see it?

I watched it on the flight back to France after the wedding. It’s pretty great. I’ve had this song stuck in my head today, so I decided to get it stuck in yours as well. Enjoy!


3 thoughts on “La Seine et Moi

  1. Lynn has a Women’s World petanque tee shirt..honestly come by….we watched the woman champion of all France win her match… took place on a small field between Cannes and Nice, on the day where we were pedaling the pink fade tandem in opposite directions…you may imagine a story goes with this..some day, if ever you and M are pedaling in opposite directions I will tell you the story if your ask…cheers

  2. Laurie, we are enjoying your writing immensely! We know that you will overcome the language. Please don’t be frustrated, just keep on keepin’ on! Mike C.

  3. Hi Laurie,
    You should try this program, I get it to learn English but you can learn others languages, wich French. It’s the smartest site i know, you have to pass several grades according your level. I’m sure you’ll find it funny.
    It called busuu, It’s free. I give you the link :

    Your blog page is so nice 🙂
    Congratulations for the bby we are waiting for !


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