“I’ll be the only one who can’t speak well enough,” I complain as the Frenchie pulls up to the building.
“No you won’t,” he answers. “Look around.” He gestured to a group of Chechens who banter among themselves in guttural Russian. “Besides,” he added, “you speak better than I do.”
He’s referring to the fact that my French is often grammatically correct. What he doesn’t mention is that I have no nuance, no slang, none of the particular shortcuts that a native speaker makes, even if half-asleep.
And I misuse words that sound alike. I once tried to say: “no more pain,” and finished insisting: “no more bread.” Certain sounds are impossible: the double “l,” a certain “ouille,” and many variations of “u.” No matter how I try, summoning the sounds with my eyes shut so I can focus, they remain impossible. I tell stories instead of jokes. I nod smiling when I don’t understand. I envy every foreigner who sounds better than I. In short, when it comes to other people’s well-spoken French, I can be an angry, jealous woman.
“Well, I’m not going to say a word,” I remind him.
He looks at me as though I’ve told the greatest joke he’s ever heard.
These classes were once held at a fancy hotel on the Promenade des Anglais, the broad street that rolls directly in front of the sea. In the old days, the wealthy English who journeyed to Nice for the winter (the “season” in those times), would march, or pardonez-moi, promenade up and down, taking the air, holding onto their hats and bonnets, and looking good. A brisk sea walk was considered important during the glory days of the Age of Innocence, the late 1800’s. Of course, it was necessary to look good while doing good. You can find postcards of those days, showing the women in their white linens, the men in waistcoats, walking together in the gentle sun of the very mild winters in this microclimate. (Nice sits in a lovely pocket formed by the Alps and other ranges, so it boasts 300 days of sunshine. When it does rain, people believe they will go insane).
But back to the Fifi story.
No fancy hotel setting for us. The government has just switched that location for a not-so-new building in the north part of the city—far away from the temptations of the sea, and eliminating the possibility of thievery that seemed to happen too often. In other words, eliminate temptation and you’ll create better citizens.
And I have to talk as soon as I walk in.
The room has just been painted and is noxious, I can use no other word. Fumes fill my lungs with each breath. I approach the leader, an exquisite young woman from, I later find out, Togo. My asthma spray in hand, I beg for the windows to be open, because the air conditioning is circulating only the fumes.
“You can leave, you know,” she answers skeptically, as if I were only trying another of the many excuses she’s heard. “But if you do, you’ll have to come back another day. And I’m on vacation for a month.” That means,” she consults her pack of papers, that you can’t take the class until the beginning of September.”
I am properly chastised. “Non,” I answer, of course, “I’ll stay.”
I creep back to a seat near the open window, relieved by the circulating air, but now attacked by the unrelenting sun. It is easily 90 degrees even before 10 AM.
We start with a sentence about ourselves. Most people say their names and where they’ve come from. I announce all that plus 1) I’m not looking for work because I’m a writer, and 2) I’ve been married to a French man for nine years. I suppose I did well enough because, Mirabelle, the leader, is smiling at me.
My next challenge comes with her question: “What drew France into the Second World War?”
I’ve been able to get through one hour of French history without temptation. But this question is too enticing, especially because no one answers. Not the Chechens through their translator, or all the others from North Africa.
“No one knows?” Mirabelle asks then insists. “No one?” She is looking at me.
I do know, of course—I’ve written about those first days of the war. Now I don’t even have to argue with myself. That long arm of mine is in the air. I think I even wave it a bit.
“Oui, Fifi, j’ecoute.” I’m listening.
“C’etait l’invasion de Pologne,” I answer. Germany invaded Poland, set off an international ultimatum and got exactly what it wanted: war.
My teacher is happy with me. “Exactement,” she says. I get an A for knowing some history.
By lunchtime, I am a star. Whenever Mirabelle has a question, she looks my way. And I accept my responsibility to keep the class going. The Chechens are mumbling in Russian among themselves. The North Africans look like they could care less. I am taking notes, filling pages and pages about France. And asking very important questions—“Why is Marianne, the French symbol of revolution half-naked?” (A mystery, I’m sure has tormented all Americans. My Frenchie once told me that it was because she simply was French).
The right answer: Because she is the mother of her country and her exposed breast is a sign of succor, food, aid, and inspiration for all of France. Think breast-feeding. As my husband said, remember it’s France. Could you see the Puritans choosing a half-naked woman as their emblem?
Why did France give in so quickly to the Nazis? I ask another time. Because they were shocked by the quick attack. But there was the underground.
At lunch I sit with Mirabelle and two other women; one from west Africa, who smiles shyly and is mostly silent, the other from north Africa, who has ditched the veil and dresses like every other French woman. Over French fries, fried calamari, I chat happily. I feel like the teacher’s pet.
That afternoon, however, turns serious, and for me, becomes a real indication of what France is facing in welcoming these strangers.
Mirabelle begins to list the LAWS of conduct for every citizen. Seriously she reads aloud:
A man cannot hit his wife.
A man cannot keep his wife in the house.
A man cannot keep her from working or force her to work if she does not want to.
A man cannot beat his children.
A man cannot force his daughter to leave school.
A man cannot force his daughter to marry someone she does not want to marry.
And on and on. Pages and pages of what Westerners consider anathema to women’s rights.
Finally, Mirabelle explains the European Union. “What is the official anthem?” she asks.
A theme song? I look around to see if anyone responds.
“Does anyone know Ode to Joy?” Guess who she’s looking at…
I raise my hand.
“Can you hum it Fifi?”
Now, there’s a lot I can do with ease—give a speech, make a dress, decorate a room or a cake, diagram a sentence, dance like on TV, speak OK French. But the one thing I CAN NOT do, never in my life, no matter how much I want to—is keep a tune. I can NOT sing.
She is smiling at me. The class is looking at me. And before I know it, That Fifi, who can’t keep her mouth shut, is humming. Loudly. And Mirabelle is humming with me.
“How did you do?” my husband asks when he picks me up.
I show him the signed certificate. I show him Mirabelle’s number because she wants to keep in touch. I show him the pages of notes I’ve taken about French history, French laws, even about French symbols.
“And did you speak up?” He is laughing.
“Not much,” I answer.
And armed with that certificate, and after an entire morning in another office, I am officially awarded my Carte de Sejour that is good for 10 whole years! Of course, I had to wait a month for the laminiated copy.