Essay: The French connection
On French National Day, Sonali Mujumdar reminisces about a pen pal back in the 1980s and the French classes at school that led to the linguistic love affair of a lifetime
In one corner of a shelf of my bookcase, sits a large and slim coffee table book titled L’Alsace et Les Vosges. The vivid blue sky on its cover is the perfect foil to the typical half-timbered Alsatian house in the foreground, with its neat window boxes sporting cheery red geraniums straight out of a picture postcard. The volume has been with me over 30 years, but was lost to view under a mountain of material possessions. It was a Christmas gift that came all the way from a small village named Bourgaltroff in Lorriane in northeast France, sometime in the mid 1980s, and is a splash of fairytale tableaux of the region: scenes from a pastoral life, villages, vineyards, cobbled streets, hand crafted signboards, locals in traditional red, black and white costumes, historic village squares and such.
For a period of roughly four years, Aline Boni, the French girl from Bourgaltroff and I corresponded regularly, exchanging handwritten letters, sometimes pressed flowers from her garden or our stamp sized pictures. The arrival of these missives brought immeasurable joy at both our ends. We had connected through an international penpal association. Her English was not perfect, I was yet to learn French. The imperfect communication was good enough for two schoolgirls excited about having a friend across borders. It was also my first impressionistic window to a country and its culture I knew little about. The internet was a few light years away.
Somewhere around the same time, Ms Carvalho came along. The year was 1984 and I was in 8th grade. In a classroom crammed with 30 or maybe 40 students, a teacher hobbled across the tiny space between desks as newly-formed teenaged voices stridently chanted,“Je m’appelle, tu t’appelles, il s’appelle…”. The stern, unsmiling Ms Carvalho enunciated every syllable and consonant, asking us to repeat after her. Passionate about us learning the language correctly, she poured her heart and soul into her teaching. When she taught in that cramped classroom with its dusty beams and rafters, she lit the space up with her eyes and her operatic intonations of all the French pronouns and their accompanying verb forms. If there was one period I looked forward to, it was Ms Carvalho’s French class.
It was the last three years of school, and we dutifully went through the paces of learning and rote-learning the tedium-filled curriculum laid down by the state board while living through the usual gamut of high school experiences. I loathed chemistry and mathematics, silently suffered physics, and as for the rest of the subjects, they elicited a middling level of interest. Ms Carvalho introduced me to new territory, a foreign language, in a manner she knew best. We parroted with gusto because the noisy reverberations also infused a fun theatrical element into our dreary classroom. Even today, when I teach French virtually to students of all ages, certain sections of grammar take me back to the sonority of Ms Carvalho’s class and the efficacy of that teaching.
I do not know when it was that I fell in love with the French language. Was there a defining moment? It is unlikely. A certain je ne sais quoi led to a hunger to learn more. Over time, the beauty of the language grew on me: its soft sounds, idiomatic expressions, the idiosyncrasies, the rules and the exceptions. The story of my rapport with French is a big ineluctable part of the story of me.
Somewhere after those early years of French in school, college and a year at the local Alliance Française de Goa, I lost touch with it. Flashforward to more than a decade later when I moved cities, and was beginning a brand new chapter. On an idle whim, I enrolled at Alliance Française de Poona in a class of beginners where I was the oldest at 30. In big bright classrooms where the teachers spoke to the students only in French from day one, and chatter between students and the teacher was encouraged at all times so long as it was in French, learning was a revelation and a delightful process. My study gave me contentment and a raison d’être. I discovered that I was happiest learning a language. The teachers were an erudite bunch and they spoke the language beautifully.
Three years flew by, and I was done with all the courses that were on offer. What next? I joined the institute as a teacher. However, at a subliminal level, I was not at ease. I felt clumsy standing before a class of students while I went through the paces of “bonjour”, “merci beaucoup” and “pardon”, not quite sure whether I was adequately expressing to my students the nuances of this Romance language from the Indo-European family of languages, and descended from Latin. Would they see through me? I loved French but as a teacher I felt ill at ease.
In the summer of 2005, on a scholarship from the French Embassy, I did a six-week summer course for teachers of FLE (Français Langue Etrangère or French as a Foreign Language) at the Centre de Linguistique Appliqué de Besançon (Centre for Applied Linguistics in Besançon) which is part of the Université Franche Comté, a well-known university in the east of France. This was my first visit to France, and I was suitably thrilled. For the world, France is synonymous with the moveable feast that Paris is.
My first taste of France was this small picturesque eastern town lying astride the lazy loop of the Doubs River. It was an unforgettable summer of living at a university campus with scores of student-teachers like me, from countries across the world, striking conversations in French and hearing various accented versions of it, attending classes and creative modules taught by local French professors and hanging out in the town of Besançon with newly-made friends over wine in open cafés.
That first evening, I made friends with Wellington from Brazil and Magda from Poland. We sat at the tiny terrasse of a small bar in the town square, sipping Anis for the first time, watching the sun go down at 10 pm! Over the course of the programme, we learned how to teach better and creatively, picking through a slew of modules designed for teachers of FLE. It was also six weeks of conspicuous cultural consumption: gastronomy and wine, evenings and weekends spent in exploring the town and its environs, day visits to the magnificent Chateau de Joux with a 1000 year old history, weekend trips to the strategic city of Strasbourg and Dijon the capital of the Burgundy region.
On 14th July, we had the good fortune to witness the ceremonial fanfare of France’s National Day, Bastille Day as it is known the world over outside of France: a military parade down the main streets followed by a magnificent fireworks display in the evening. I left behind a big piece of my heart while bidding adieu to the conviviality I had known in Besançon and the international community of friends all heading back to their respective countries. When I returned to Alliance Française with renewed vigour, it was also to enrol for a Masters in French at the Pune Univeristy, which helped open other doors.
The souvenirs have been plentiful, of later work trips to France when I worked in the travel industry for a decade: of warming up to Paris and discovering why the world loses its heart to this city that is beautiful, cold, dirty and enticing. Paris takes your breath away in a way that one forgets there is more to France. I have a particular bias towards Nice on the French Riviera with its Old Port, its well-known black and white chequered square and Mediterranean vibe that reminds me of the susegad-ness of Goa. It also contains a sliver of Bombay, where the sweep of the Promenade des Anglais mimics Marine Drive. Marseille is a tad edgy but made pretty by the Vieux Port awash with a sea of masts standing in unison. There are other places I have known through my numerous visits, Nantes, Toulouse, Lyon, Cannes, Bordeaux, Lille, names that sound just as lovely as the towns they are, each with their own distinct personas.
French has literally taken me places. If there is one thing I have learned, it is that language learning seldom takes place in isolation, and does not stop even as a teacher. A lot of it happens outside the classroom. I learned about the music of Zaz and how ‘Sous le ciel de Paris’ can be heard tirelessly on loop. I knew I did not want the experience of eating escargots (snails) again, after that first time in the Quartier Latin in Paris. I also found friends and a home I am welcome in, in the warmth of Southern France.
French also stood me in good stead when the world came to a standstill and made very little sense. During the lockdown, I decided to go back to an old skill and started teaching French online to hobbyists, students who wanted supplementary tutoring in the language, or anyone who was curious about it. To my delight, this time around I loved the teaching. I felt at home.
It was also during the lockdown that the long-ago book from Aline resurfaced and I felt the need to find out where she was. Thanks to the power of social media, an intense search led me to a woman, a painter-musician who lives in Brittany. When we met virtually, it was sweet and magical. We had a lot to catch up on. This time we chatted in French. I am sure Ms Carvalho would have approved, and maybe even smiled.