One day, I’d brought the book along as a subway read for my daily commute before realizing I was in over my head: My lapsed language skills made it a more time-intensive read than I’d expected. I made a few more halting attempts to work through it, but I never made the time to pick the book back up again.
On that sleepless night, I toyed with the idea of returning to my French studies. Besides the appeal of adding another anxiety-defying hobby to my list—albeit a time-consuming one that’s understandably being used as an example of unrealistic expectations for our “free time”—there was something comforting about the thought of revisiting a language I used to know so well.
I also had the desire to reach back out to people and reconnect, just like many others during our social-distancing moment. I wondered whether my high school teacher, an exacting but humorous instructor who made each class so engaging, was still in the game. A few minutes of online sleuthing informed me that Madame, as we’d addressed her, was still working at my alma mater. Soon, I was typing out an email of my own: J’étais ton élève il y a quelques ans. Je ne sais pas si tu me rappelles, mais… I was your student some years ago. I don’t know if you remember me, but… I told her about Pfeiffer’s book, and how that class from years ago had stuck with me. I asked her thoughts on Portrait of a Lady on Fire—it was in her class that I learned about Cannes and its cultural significance—and her advice on how to recover my language skills.
Later that night, my phone lit up from my nightstand. The beginnings of an email read: Of course I remember you! Let me begin by saying your French seems quite strong…
For the sake of clarity, we corresponded mostly in English, interspersed with snippets of French. I shared my major life updates with her and she sent over resources for French language immersion that she had also sent her class of seniors, whose school year had been abruptly upended: podcasts, French films like The African Doctor and He Even Has Your Eyes to watch on Netflix, a newsletter that aggregates French news, the language-quiz app Duolingo.
A few days later, newly inspired, I sat back down with Je Ne Suis Pas Parisienne. But barely four words in, I was stumped. “Quelques exemples: les fameux talons aiguilles,” Pfeiffer wrote of the qualities of the stereotypical Parisenne. “Some examples: the famous…” Talons couldn’t be nails, could it? I was secure in my knowledge that the French girl has never been famously defined by nails, and besides, nails were ongles. Hoping to figure out talons myself, I searched for aiguilles—I had no context clues for its possible meaning. The translation came back: needles. My confusion only grew. I gave up and translated talons aiguilles together, and when I read the result—stilettos—I laughed aloud.
Making sense of all the references and colloquialisms took close to an hour for just 20 pages of the book, but figuring it all out was immensely satisfying. And right now, I can certainly use an activity that totally absorbs me; reading and decoding the passages is mentally demanding, but it’s something I look forward to, which is invaluable. Revisiting French also inspires me to stay optimistic about what the future may hold. Do I dare to hope to use the language while traveling one day? I don’t know. Maybe tomorrow’s reading will go faster, but honestly, it’s okay if it doesn’t.
This content was originally published here.