(the misadventures of an expatriate corporate dropout)

Monday, April 28, 2008

my french story. part whatever.

Some folks have asked me variations on "why France?"

I could wax rhapsodic, ramble and rant for pages ... so I think it will be a multi-part tale. how many, who knows.

I first became enamored of France as a freshwoman (ha - I guess that might also be freshgirl) in high school. Back in the day, California required two years of language study for graduation. Would that the day would return, learning a language is a great thing. But I digress.

So, while most of my fellow students opted for the usefullness of Spanish, I had a romantic notion or two. And opted for the language of love.

My teacher was the most unlikely prospect for French one could imagine. He was well over 6 feet tall with close cut, thinning hair and a long, full red beard. Mr. Cavanaugh. As Scotch-Irish looking as they come. He had no fashion sense, as I recall he favored short-sleeved plaid shirts with a too-short tie and too-short pants to match.

But the man could speak some French. And he made France come alive every day in that classroom. Mr. Cavanaugh imbued us all with his obvious enchantment with la belle France.

Of course we had the prerequisite enunciation drills (anyone walking by the class would have thought we were all in there alternately hocking loogies and honking our sinuses in group order!).

However, in addition to the exercises, we were regaled with Monsieur Cavanaugh's home movies and slides of different regions. We listened to French pop music. We scoured French fashion magazines and even saw bits of French telly. We chose our own French names and were transported. I was Genevieve.

Fast forward 10 years and the young Miss Genevieve was a single mom, working in an office and contemplating where to send my 4-year old daughter to kindergarten. Having become captivated by my co-worker Carola's tales of a lovely little French school in Berkeley, California ... I began my research. Imagine not only being able to take a French class but to have an entire education in that lovely language!

Keeping in mind that, to date, the only trips outside of the country were either slightly chemical (ahem, another story altogether) or flights of my imagination. And yet, the more I read and learned about exposing little ones to learning in multiple languages ... the better it sounded.

I visited the little Ecole Bilingue de Berkeley and it felt like a mini-United Nations. I wanted a tolerant and mind-expanding environment for my little ones and somehow, in spite of my limited means, couldn't imagine a better place for my daughter. Despite knowing there were hundreds of applicants and few openings, and that many of the well-placed families would most likely be far more appealing than this young single mother on a secretary's income, I prepared my application. On our interview day, I dressed my daughter and I in our finest and assumed my most confident attitude. Which I had no business being in possession of. How on earth I thought I could afford such a thing, one wonders. In retrospect, even I am amazed by my chutzpah.

We awaited the news with much anticipation. We received our first-round reject, with a tiny thread of hope held out that "some families will select an alternative school and we will let you know if an opening appears at a later date". Many would be discouraged but, undaunted, I wrote a reply to the school outlining all the reasons why a family such as ours would contribute to the diversity of its student body. We were accepted on the second round and thus began my first introduction into a French bilingual community.

Not to imply that we were bilingual by any means! But why should that hinder me?! The flames of my love affair with all things French had been fanned once more ... and would burn more and more brightly as the years ensued.

More to come.


La Framéricaine said...


Thank you for this first installment on "Why France?" I love French affair-of-the-heart stories and yours is a goody, filled with passion and a grand capacity to delight and inspire! I can just see you and your daughter marching up to that school in your Sunday best with no intention of being turned around. Bravo!

My French language trailblazer was Miss Baker in back of beyond Oklahoma in 1964. I will definitely get her immortalized as you have so handily accomplished for Mr. Cavanaugh.


Kimberlee said...

Look forward to reading about Ms. Baker's french inspiration!

Philip W said...

Kim, I wish I could say it was due to the culture...but my first immersion in the language came from a 6 month exchange program when I was 16. Suffice it to say, my efforts at french in class were mediocre at best but when the chance came to get out of my all male boarding school for 6 months (and all the rules, no girls etc.) I took it. I lived with a gardner, his wife and three kids in Brittany and fully immersed myself in playing pinball, drinking beer and chasing french girls. Que Manifique!