I See France

Speech Therapy

The other day I finally caved and went looking for a French tutor. The local expatriate magazine is jammed with classified ads placed by French teachers angling for Americans in linguistic despair. One of these jumped off the page: BEST FRENCH TEACHER IN PARIS, it said, unequivocally. MAKES GRAMMAR PAINLESS, CONVERSATION FLOW.

Immediately, I called the number listed and got an answering machine with a woman’s voice on it. I left a message in my moron French. Two days and no return phone calls later, I left another message, this time in English. The Best French Teacher in Paris was clearly in a seller’s market. I didn’t want to seem too eager. Then again, I didn’t want to miss out on what might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to speak French without pain. Two more days passed, and still she failed to call. Finally, I gave in, called yet again, and pleaded into her answering machine for a return phone call. In the middle of my pathetic speech the Best French Teacher in Paris picked up the phone.

“Reticent” does not begin to capture her attitude toward my desire to study with her. “Oh,” she said, when I explained that I was simply responding to her ad. “I should have taken that out.” She obviously had so many desperate Americans banging down her door to get to her painless grammar and her flowing conversation that she had no use for one more.

This, of course, only made me more eager to hire her. A minute into the conversation and I was determined to become her pupil. I was prepared to pay whatever she asked. Money, however, wasn’t the only issue.

“The trouble is,” she finally said, after I’d finished begging to be let in. “I am no longer interested in teaching French.”

I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything.

“I have just finished a course in psychology,” she said. “I’m moving on with my business.”

Up till then, the Best French Teacher in Paris had sounded supremely self-assured. Now, as she began to explain her new desire to become a psychologist, a note of uncertainty crept into her voice. She was prepared, she said, to offer me the same deal she had offered her French students. A twofer. She would teach me French only if I agreed my status was not “French student” but “psychiatric patient.” The finest French lessons in Paris were therefore available, but at the market price of therapy. If I wanted to think of her psychiatric counseling merely as “French lessons,” well, that was fine by her. But in these lessons I’d be doing all the talking, starting with a long description of any traumas I might have experienced in childhood. (“Good for learning the past tense,” as she put it.)

Her schedule was filling up, she said. If I wanted her help, I needed to decide immediately.

I went back and forth a bit. On the one hand, this was the sort of madness only a trained psychologist would propose; on the other hand, France is rapidly turning me into a head case and so I could probably use a little shrinking. On the one hand it might be pleasant to have someone pretend to be interested in my personal problems, at half the price of a good lawyer; on the other hand, it’s cheaper still to simply write them up for publication. On the one hand, I’d grown weary of telling French people I couldn’t understand them; on the other hand … well, there was no other hand. I booked myself in for Tuesday afternoons.

After I’d hung up I went to tell my wife that, in seeking the perfect French teacher, I had found myself, for the first time in my life, in therapy. She recalled the advice she had gleaned from our library of books on how to get along with the French. “Everyone in Paris is in therapy,” she said, “but it is considered bad form to admit it.”