French Dipthongs and The Art of Swaying
I ARRIVED in France in the fall, fresh out of college with years of French behind me, only to discover that I couldn't pronounce the place where I was going: Grenoble. Or rather I couldn't pronounce it the French way. When I'd try to tell people - at Le Havre where the boat docked or in Paris where I stopped en route - they would look at me and say ``Quoi?'' They'd just say ``What?'' without even gracing me with ``Where?'' They didn't know what I was talking about, and I didn't know what they were talking about. I kept hoping it would be a matter of weeks until I would be fluent, but it was more a matter of months. Day after day, I'd smile and understand a few more words.
When I looked for lodgings, I asked each landlady whether there was a bath. Finally one portly landlady said yes and showed me the tub. I didn't think to ask whether there was also hot water. I settled into a bare room and after bracing myself through a couple of cold baths, I learned there were public baths with hot water on the other side of the city. So once a week, with my cake of soap and my bath towel, I'd take the bus and stand in line for my tubful of steaming hot water.
In the dead of winter, the water froze in the pipes. We had no running water whatsoever, and still worse, no heat. The portly landlady took to wearing her fur coat and fur hat, but I didn't have a fur coat or a fur hat. I tried to study wrapped up in woolen blankets and woolen socks, scarves, and mittens. Eventually I stayed in my room only to sleep.
I was supposed to be studying contemporary literature. I registered at the Faculte des Lettres and chose courses and lectures related to the 20th century. But I was unable to understand more than one sentence at a time. So I dropped my morning lectures and went to French classes for foreign students. In the afternoon I returned to the Faculte, this time choosing courses and lectures according to which professors spoke the slowest. Only when I found myself taking notes in French, and not in English, did I realize something was at last happening.
After much practice, I was also learning the French ``r.'' I could almost say ``Gre-noble'' and gargle the ``r'' out correctly. But the professor said it was my nasal consonantal diphthongs which were wrong, insisting that only when I could correctly pronounce un bon vin blanc, would I be truly fluent. I repeated the sounds, ``un, on, in, an,'' until indeed, I was readily understood.
Next came the ski lessons. All the students skied at Grenoble, and each Saturday the university ski club organized lessons on the nearby mountains. The instructors asked me if I had ever skied before. I nodded my head, and they put me on the cable car right up to the top of Chamrousse, where the Olympic giant slalom run was held the following year. No one asked me where I had skied or how often I had skied. They wouldn't have understood me anyway. It had been on a golf course, one winter when I was 10 y ears old.
So up I went to the top of the mountain. When we began putting on our skis, I couldn't figure out how to work the clamps. The instructors thought I was kidding. Then we started down the mountain, about 10 of us, one behind the other. It was snowing and our instructor kept yelling back, aval, and then, amont. One means to turn on the upper ski, the other means to turn on the lower ski. It was snowing so hard that it didn't matter, I couldn't see the difference.
The next week when I went back in sunny weather and saw the slope I had skied down the week before, I tried to say there had been a mistake. But it was too late, I was already on my way back up.
Throughout the year I took my meals in a student hall where the dining room was on the second floor, which for the French is the first floor. Instead of lining up downstairs, everyone would just plow their way into the wide staircase. At first I couldn't believe it. I thought I'd be able to help them understand how much simpler it was to wait their turn in line. This was out of the question - anything resembling a line is simply not French.
This particular style of line in winter time, with snow and ice on our boots, was treacherous. More than once, several of us would slide backward, only to be pushed forward by those behind us. No one ever really fell. In fact, it was fun. We just swayed back and forth together.
Inside the dining room, I always sat at the same table and listened to the same group of students. They'd discuss everything with the same passion, be it skiing or Marx, noodles or Mendelssohn. There were two girls in the group and five boys. The girls mostly listened, although they had no evident problem with their diphthongs. The boys never listened, they talked all at once. Some were Roman Catholic, others were communist; some were both, others were neither. There was a war going on in Algeria. Some were for the French staying in, others were for the French getting out.
In our group of friends there was little pairing off and dating. When I explained how in the States a boy and girl first dated, then went steady, then got pinned, and then engaged, they shook their heads and said it sounded like standing in line. So wherever we went, we'd pile up on four scooters, the eight of us, putting our arms around whomever was ahead of us.
In May, over a long weekend, one of the boys in our group organized a student trip to Venice. He asked me to go along, just for company. Not really, for when I overslept the morning we were to leave, he had the bus come underneath my window and the chauffeur honk the horn. The others waited patiently while I gathered my things and hurried down the staircase. From then on Pierre kept me up front with him so I wouldn't get lost.
On our way back we stopped at Bellagio, a little village jutting out into the middle of Lago di Como. We found a boat to take us across the blue-green lake to the Villa Carlotta, where the azalea gardens were riotous with color and perfume. Somehow in the middle of all the flowers, we found ourselves alone. The bushes, each branch laden with blossoms, were taller than we. They opened their arms and closed them behind us. The flowers - red, pink, fuchsia - glowed in the sunlight. Their fragrance made me lightheaded.
And unexpectedly, I fell in love with a Frenchman. When I stopped worrying about my nasal consonantal diphthongs, they started to come naturally. And when I went back to the States in the summer, I no longer wanted to stand in line. I wanted to sway....