If like me you struggle with languages, the very first time you were actually understood by a stranger while traveling and trying to use your high school Spanish, French or German, it might have felt like complete mastery to you. The beauty of mastery, is that you get to define your own success, individually.
I started studying French in high school and have taken lessons on and off for years. Especially just before our wedding in France, the way couples take dance lessons just for their first dance. Making my speech in French at our wedding was another big step along the way, especially since I was meeting most of the French guests for the first time. I hate to admit that for the past few years just getting by and surviving the “French Only Spoken Here” house rule during week long visits at my in-laws is the level I reached and where I lazily plateaued.
Last summer while applying for the kids’ French passports at the Consulate in Amsterdam, my husband inquired about applying for me as well. We knew I met the requirements based on the length of our marriage and year of our son’s birth, but we also knew that because we lived outside of France, there would be a French language “requirement”. Merde, I was nervous! Infinitely easier to talk on subjects of my choice rather than answer questions, I took a proactive approach and started speaking very rapidly when we met with the official.
I explained that while my French wasn’t fluent, I did my best with my parents in law and always improved after a few days in France. I told him I would be very appreciative if he didn’t mind sticking to my favorite subjects of French wine, Champagne, fromage and handbags. The official broke into a big smile and confirmed that indeed my French might not be fluent, but it was absolutely charming and he declared that it would do. I was beaming with pride! Everyone knows the French value style over substance, so I felt that charming was a great compliment, definitely trumping mere fluency!
During the past school year I challenged myself to speak with my son’s teacher in French more often because I really appreciate her and she lights up when I make the effort. (I even admitted that I demanded to know from my son which class rule he had broken, when she sent a note home about it; turned out that he had broken his ruler and needed a replacement.)
This week I passed another milestone worth celebrating on my path to mastery. My husband deposited me and the kids at his parents in Brittany and left for the week. I survived, on my own, without the buffer/translator, and without any pillow talk in English after dark!
Upon my husband’s return last night, the magical moment happened. His mother asked me to recount a story I had told her the day before about a family I encountered on my bike ride along the canal. I told her how cute it was to see this Dad and small kids vacationing and traveling by bike. My reaction turned to horror when I passed the mother a few minutes later with ALL the rest of the kids; too many to count as each parent had babies in bike trailers too! As I retold the story, she laughed so hard she cried. This is a woman I have never seen cry and only occasionally laugh. It was a rare and spendid sight.
My French is far from fluent, I still try to rephrase everything to fit in my two favorite tenses; passé composé and future proche, and I know with certainty that sometimes what I say ends up sounding like, “They is hungry yesterday.” But the ability to express yourself, connect with someone, be truly understood, and move them to laugh or to cry, or both at the same time is the ultimate. This is the magic of mastering French.