Birth of a Francophile

An older piece that used to be another blog that is, alas, no more. I found it again today, made some edits, and decided to post it, being an old favorite of mine. Enjoy:

I sat around reading warning labels as a kid. Maybe some kids played basketball or kickball. Nope. Not me. That’s where I first learned French.

The words were musical. Though they burbled from my lips in coagulated lumps of mangled forms, I sensed the potential for improvement. For lush vowels and fluid links. Of course I had no idea what they meant, either.  Attention! I said to my dad. Regardez! Gonflable! The last one means airbags, in case you’re wondering.

I started taking French in middle school. My teacher was a lean woman with a face like Edith Piaf and frenetic red hair that never changed, as is suspended in perpetual clothes-folding static. A lyricist of French grammar, she sang songs about the imperfect tense to the tune of jingle bells, and if we misbehaved, she swore in Greek under her breath.

My dad and I met her at the open house. Shy, sixth-grade me crept in behind his shadow, entering a room marinated in cafe music, Nutella, and pictures of Paris.

It proved to be an ambush.

A typical poster-like image I took in Paris

Two French-class groupies flanked us. One captured my dad in empty conversation, while the other–with short blond hair and flush cheeks–backed me against a wall. She said my feathery blond hair was cute and asked if I knew any French. I nodded.

“Bonjour?” I squeaked.

“Here, take this!” she said, thrusting a baguette slice spread with Nutella. I held it. “Try it,” she said.

I did. It was delicious, love at first bite. And so, the insidious French-class groupie almost had me with her crafty tartine-inspired plot. But then the teacher, who soon introduced herself as “Doc,” rescued us. Of course, my dad did all the talking–as I burrowed into his shadow once again–but the meeting launched my love of French beyond reading airbag warning labels.

Doc infused her lectures with cooky stories with characters like “Chickolina” and used argyle socks to illustrate the placement of pronouns in a sentence. She made French easy to remember, even fun at times. My grades didn’t always reflect it, but my love grew.

By my final two years, Doc retired, so I had Mademoiselle Kent. Tall, fit, with jet-black hair, and hazel eyes that glowed green in the sun. She dressed in prim, well-pressed clothes,including turtlenecks, and when she spoke, her eyebrows arched and her nose twitched in the most adorable way.

I had a serious crush. I even wrote a little poem about her: “Her nosed twitched when she talked,/Her feet itched when she walked.” Nothing creepy, but I blushed when she called my name and got anxious when she asked me to stay after class.

She was from Grenoble, but had spent most of her life in America and spoke English with a clean American accent that dissolved when she spoke French. Out of boredom in most classes, I described them. Here’s an example from my Hunter S. Thompson phase in 10th grade:

Her eager, oscillating features remind me of a hopeful school girl who tries, fails, but never loses hope as she shuffles her feet with the excitement that perhaps today will be a good day. Perhaps, she hopes, the class will listen, and she will be able to teach. It will be different today, she thinks, and they will understand!

“Bonjour, Brett,” she happily states with a stifled, rapid wave. She smiles, and I look up with tired eyes.

“Bonjour, Madam,” I return with a smile. Yes have a good day. Dream your dreams, and hope against hope that today will be different. As I turn the corner, I hear the noise outside, and the noise within. I cannot decide which is louder.

I see a cunning little paper missile whizz across the room. It hits a wall, and somewhere someone curses. A war seems to be in the works…

A typical day. The blonde ballet dancer who sat in front of me–my first head-over-heals infatuation–would always crack her back, with a sickening percussion of snaps and bodily gurgles. My friend Matt and I sat in the back passing messages back and forth by packing them in a pen. Another guy would idle in the corner, planning tricks. Once he locked a girl’s thong to the chair. Another time he pulled a block of wood with a nail in it from his Mary Poppins backpack, which had everything in it from said block and said lock to empty unlabeled pill bottles and wadded, crinkled balls of crushed paper.

When the teacher turned her back, the paper balls flew.

Eleventh grade was different. AP French was serious business. We had five people–my friend James and three girls. Studies included French movies, French bread, Edith Piaf, and artful paper fish to stick on people’s back–apparently an April Fool’s tradition called the poisson d’Avril.

My parents and I also went to Paris for a week.


Day one, we ambled through the city half-lost and saddled with jet lag until the gray sky spilled its guts against the wide boulevards and beige buildings. You could drink the air. We swam in it until Dad bought an overpriced umbrella.

The week strolled on. We saw art at La Grande Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay, climbed the Eiffel Tour and L’Arch de Triomphe, and visited one of Paris’ largest cemeteries, Père Lachaise, where I sat at Chopin’s grave beneath the pastel-pink blossoms of early spring. Outside La Louvre, my mom threw an umbrella at my dad to the quit smile of a Frenchman smoking nearby.

We were typical American tourists.

But amid the sightseeing, my fondest memories were from cafés. Nibbling pain au chocolat with its warm, buttery folds falling on my lap. Sipping cafe au lait as sexy Parisian women strutted by on the ChampsÉlysées. Sipping wine and cracking crème brûlée with a teaspoon. Watching the city dim in a haze of golden light and billowed shadows at dusk, the Eiffel Tour lit against the black sky like a silver beacon.

Chopin’s grave

Since then, I’ve blossomed from a precocious young French student to a full-fledged francophile. I have more French movies than English-speaking titles. I listen to French music and sing it in the shower. I read French books. I love French history.

Where it all leads, I can’t tell. Where it all came from, I don’t know. Perhaps warning labels. Perhaps crazy French-class groupies bearing baguettes and Nutella. Perhaps my dreamy French teacher or my vacation to Paris.

When an urge or an interest becomes a label, the whole ordeal gets sticky. The label molds us to its image, yet already has its source from within. I always wonder if there’s a single seed–a memory perhaps–that sprouts and runs its leafy tendrils through our being until it dominates or if experiences and quirks accumulate and knot together under a single name, like francophile. I wonder where the label ends and where we begin.

But for now, I’ll eat my Nutella and turn up Joe Dassin with joie de vivre. After all, c’est la vie.

2 thoughts on “Birth of a Francophile

  1. Loved this post…there is nothing quite like having a crush on a teacher to make the subject paradoxically extremely interesting on one level yet incomprehensible on another level. French cafes and beautiful French women speaking an incredibly romantic language…I’m with you on this one.

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