As we pen the final French Lessons post for the summer of 2021, let’s first review where we’ve journeyed in this off-kilter season – and to newcomers who stumble here in the cooler months, we say a hearty “Soyez le bienvenu!” Welcome!
- We first reunited with Bellevue, our quirky, summer home in Antibes (even though an important part of us never had left) in Rebonjour: From My Eclectic Pandemic Muse.
- Soon we were strewn with all sorts of luck – because la chance, en français, is just as sweet – but we spent our good fortune too quickly in Luck in Antibes: It’s Not for the Birds.
- We fixed a strange cut in Bellevue’s electricity using the custom of social ties in Domotique: Small Firms Light Up French Life.
- We then mourned the Côte d’Azur’s famous restos de plage and tried to understand the rationale behind their demise in Why Is the Riviera Razing its Beach Restaurants?
Around the time of that second post, when a seagull was unloading its viscous luck over my husband Philippe’s unsuspecting head, our daughter Lolo was searching online for a summer French class. She still has two years left in high school, but we heard that universities like to see at least a couple high school language credits.
It’s not that Lolo doesn’t know French. Au contraire. When she was only four years old, she’d flounced up to me in our kitchen one evening and for some odd reason declared, “Maman, il faut que je sois sage.”
At the time, this maman had been struggling to learn the tyrannical French verb formation called le subjonctif. I’d stared down at my toddler. “Did you just use the subjunctive?”
Lolo flinched. She didn’t know what the subjunctive was. She didn’t even know what a verb was. She didn’t know why Mommy sounded so serious either, but she did know that she was supposed to be sage, a very French vocabulary word that describes the wise and well-mannered behaviour expected of French schoolchildren.
Now a dozen years later, Lolo has never stopped speaking French. (All things considered, she’s pretty sage, too.) Her français sounds like that of a native. It’s just those bizarre spellings and pesky little accents that get in the way of writing – and so earlier this summer, she was scouring the internet for an appropriate high school French class.
Her high school counselor kindly met with us online even after we’d arrived in France. “If you want to do a French course this summer, that’s great,” she told our 16-year-old. It was the straightforward way to approach university applications. “Or,” she said, “if you’d rather learn by immersion while you’re in France, that works, too.”
Lolo swiftly abandoned the research. Instead of summer bookwork, my teenager wandered Antibes’ ancient streets and did archery with her friend Clotilde. She surfed and cycled and strolled the long, tidal beaches of Saint-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie with Éros. She whipped around on inflatable water toys in Villeneuve-Loubet with Ilan and played majestic piano music with him back in Antibes. She swam and yakked with her friend Kaiya, and with Spencer she relished a teens-only night out in Nice and kayaked in France’s forested Ardèche region.
“Which language did you speak with Spencer and her family?” I asked my daughter when she returned from her kayaking weekend.
Lolo hesitated at my pointless question. “I dunno really,” she said. “A mix of both, I guess.” I got the same answer after her time with Kaiya. English and French were interchangeable with these friends, or maybe they’d mixed the two languages into a lazy franglais.
With the first three friends – Clotilde, Éros, and Ilan – I didn’t have to ask. Their parents would have encouraged English, but for the bulk of the teens’ time together, I knew they would have surfed and cycled, shot arrows, made music, wandered, and chatted en français. Lolo had met each of these friends in preschool, here in the Côte d’Azur. Ilan, in fact, was her longest friend anywhere on the planet; they’d met when they were two. French was the only language these friends properly shared.
“Le temps te construit des racines”: This quote filled a page in a novel I read this summer. What better moment to absorb the wisdom of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry? Time was building Lolo’s roots.
Living in French, though, is more than a language. It’s not just knowing how to conjugate stubborn verbs and tossing out very French words like sage. Once this summer after grabbing a takeaway sandwich at a boulangerie, Lolo glanced back inside at the bakery’s timber display cases and rows of oven-fresh breads. “They should really have casual boulangeries in Canada,” she said, “you know, simple ones like they have here.”
My teenager was developing an appreciation of the culture that she had taken for granted during her childhood immersion. Soon a title appeared on her smartphone: “Things that Europe has that N America needs: A much needed list” and beneath it a tally grew to include better architecture, Carte d’Or chocolat noir ice cream, and –
On a recent drive a question sprang from the car’s back seat. “What do you call rond-points again?” Roundabouts.
Now the summer season has fled, and Lolo’s self-created French immersion class is winding down. One day as we contemplated our return to the other side of the ocean, she said with a chuckle, “Here goes the cultural whiplash.”
I had to laugh. Yes, life would be different back in Toronto, but during this slightly abbreviated and strange summer in Antibes, not only had my kid experienced French life alongside her parents. She had immersed herself in her surroundings, and she’d done so alongside her real, honest-to-goodness, French friends.
Several years ago, I’d run across an explanation of les relations franco-américaines as posed in The Culture Map, by Erin Meyer, a professor at INSEAD. Like so many good sayings en français, Meyer’s analogy for this cross-border relationship involved food. Americans are like peaches, she said. They are easy to approach and readily offer a piece of themselves, but their inner cores remain well protected. The French, on the other hand, are like coconuts. At first they keep a distance, but if you pierce their shells, they open up with increasing ease, and relationships grow strong and enduring.
Des pêches and des noix de coco: It’s not that one side is superficial and the other cold. Non, that interpretation is frivolous. The French, rather, don’t hurry their relationships, but once you make a friend, you have that friend for life.
Put this way, I suppose my teenager chose well with her French studies this summer. There is, after all, no more abiding education.
French Lessons will return next season, life and regulations willing, and we look forward to traipsing together through the beloved shores of France’s Côte d’Azur. If you’ve found us mid-season, why not subscribe so that next summer we’ll pop automatically into your inbox? In the meantime – and we say this with intent – keep well.
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