I See France

The Second French Lesson

On my way to my second French lesson, it occurred to me that I might be the only person in Paris who worries about whether his French teacher will find him screwed-up enough to teach. As I mentioned before, I’d answered a classified ad for the Best French Teacher in Paris only to find that the woman in question, bored with teaching French, was chucking it for psychotherapy. If I wanted the Best French Teacher in Paris, she explained, I had to become her patient.

Our first meeting took place in her kitchen and was much like any other French lesson. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, but it never did. She didn’t probe my psyche, and I certainly wasn’t about to offer it up unprovoked for her inspection. Then, at the end of the lesson, the other shoe dropped. Switching back into English from French, she said, openly and matter-of-factly, “I’m willing to work with you.” Whatever had happened the previous hour was not merely a French lesson. It was a psychiatric evaluation. In my pathetic attempts to conduct an hourlong conversation in French, I had somehow demonstrated enough mental dysfunction to catch her interest.

For our second meeting, we bypassed the kitchen and went straight to the couch. She sat in a chair, I on the edge of a long red sofa. On the sofa there was a squishy red ball, which I picked up and squished, until I realized that I was probably saying something about myself I’d have to explain. I was a ball-squisher. She said that the ball was to be placed under my back, on the off chance that I chose to stretch out on the couch. I chose not to, and meanwhile I wondered whether other head cases devoted as much energy as I intended to devote to disguising what went on inside their heads.

There is an old question that Wall Street investment bankers in the 1980s used to ask nervous job applicants to make them feel even more nervous: If you were an animal what kind of animal would you be? Sometimes I think of this question when I enter a new environment. For when I enter a new environment, I am, without question, a dog. My first instinct is to find something to pee on. Whether to make my presence known or to simply to give a stranger something to remember me by, I do not know. In any case, having observed that it is socially unacceptable to pee on other people’s possessions, I usually just walk around and pick them up and make offhanded remarks about them.

I didn’t tell my French teacher about my secret impulses, of course. Instead, I spent what must have seemed to her dog years sniffing around her stuff. Her small bookshelf suggested that she had both a taste and a love for good books: Updike, Don Quixote, Kingsley Amis, Nabokov’s lectures. Paperbacks mingled promiscuously with hardbacks; every spine was cracked. Beneath the books, two goldfish, smaller than Poisson, were trapped inside a small bowl. I asked her how long she’d had them. “Seven years,” she said. To my astonishment she added, “There’s a secret: Evian.” Twice a week she emptied and refilled the bowl with six liters of bottled mineral water. Poisson will never be so lucky.

The fish rhymed with the living room, which was designed to resemble the interior of a boat. Aside from the books and the red, presumably therapeutic couch, the place was a study in aquas. Everywhere were blue pictures of boats and beaches. A life preserver hung from the wall over her head, which by now rested impatiently on the back of her chair. She was waiting for me to settle in, and so I did. After maybe five minutes of kicking around her place, I was prepared for whatever was about to happen: Any woman who could figure out how to keep a goldfish alive for seven years must have some ability to contribute to my emotional and linguistic well-being.

At first it was unclear where the French lesson ended and where the psychotherapy began. We chatted about this and that in moron French. I do not know whether she was the Best French Teacher in Paris, but she clearly was in the hunt for the title. She put me in mind of a crafty old dentist tapping teeth: In what seemed like moments she had found the cavities in my French. Having earned my admiration, she went gunning for my affection. Unlike just about every language teacher I have ever had, she couldn’t have cared less for the spirit and purity of the language. Others might waste their time in pursuit of deep understanding; our goal was for me to be able to avoid ridicule, with minimum effort. “All the long words are the same as English,” she said, wiping out in a stroke three quarters of the vocabulary exercises. “It’s the short ones that are different.” And it was true! If you are struggling to find the words to say “I’m lost” in French, you are indeed lost. But if you want to tell someone that you have a profound interest in existentialist philosophy, you need only to flip a few English words around, and you’re home free.

Of course, this being France, what you say is not nearly so important as how you say it. An hour into the two-hour session I was giddy with a new sense of possibility. I didn’t need to learn French! I just needed to fake it well enough so that no one would notice. I’ve been doing that my whole adult life.

Perhaps sensing that she was in the presence of irrational exuberance, she stopped the conversation, and pricked the bubble. “Your accent,” she began, and after a minute or two put her finger on the problem. “You have a problem with letter ‘r.’ ” “How much of a problem?” I asked. She said I reminded her of a Japanese tourist. “When you speak French,” she said, “pretend your jaws are wired shut.”

To understand the transformation that followed, the reader must himself attempt this exercise. With your teeth clamped tightly together, speak a few words in English. Or simply read that last sentence aloud. You will find that the technique alters not only your accent but, unless you are a uniquely constipated human being, your entire personality. A person who does not open his mouth when he speaks is a changed person. Less friendly, perhaps, but more controlled. Less honest but more nuanced. Less giving but less in need of others to give to him.

From this revelation followed another: Speaking French is not a linguistic but a psychological condition. Then another: No wonder the French are so … French! You would be, too, if you weren’t allowed to open your mouth when you spoke. The Best French Teacher in Paris was a case in point: She was a different person when she spoke to me in French than when she spoke to me in English. “Other people have said that,” she said, in English, with the hint of a smile.

Then she reverted to French. A bit too casually, she said, “Why don’t you pick out and describe some incident from your past?”

“How far back?” I asked.

She shrugged. “Wherever you want to go.”