Well, I over-exaggerate. It was more like fifty. I was the new fille americaine in the small village of Paimpont in the North Eastern region of France. For the entirety of my year as a tenth grader, I had spent every waking moment preparing for this month-long exchange trip. I made a pile of eight hundred vocabulary flash cards that I knew by heart. At school, I would spend my lunchtime in the French classroom, practicing colloquial diction with Monsieur Benhaïem. At home, I would say out loud everything I was doing in French. “Je suis en train de manger un sac de Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Miam!” I sang Edith Piaf songs in the shower. During winter break, my parents had to ban me from studying French for a week so I would have no other choice than to study for that haunting biology exam. I had a poster of Napoléon Bonaparte framed and hung it over my bed.
Let’s just say that I was a bit obsessed with French.
I want to take us back to ninth grade. My parents had transferred me out of the Catholic school system into Atlanta International School. The hallways overwhelmed me. At every class change, there was a wave of chatter in all languages. To my left, I could hear the Germans excitedly talking about fußall. To my right was the French arguing about le football. Behind me, the British were bragging about their Manchester United football shirts. And the Colombians… well, I had no fucking idea what the Colombians were talking about. Probably football.
On my first day of school, I was pulled into the counseling office to talk about what language track I would be assigned to. “Alright, Moira. Let’s talk about which language you’re going to take.” “It’s Maura.” “Ah! Yes, yes. So, Moira, what language would you like to take?” I instantly responded “Spanish.” I had taken one year of Spanish in my previous year and hadn’t really minded it.
The counselor pursed her lips and looked at me. “Well, we looked at your fluency test and you are not advanced enough to join our Spanish track. What other language would you like to take?” I thought about it for a minute. My grandmother was German, so I thought that maybe I could give that a shot. “Okay. I want to take German.” She pursed her lips again. German was a no-go.
“You look like a French kind of girl. Yes. Let’s put you in French.” My heart dropped. I would have rather taken Mandarin than French. French was the most intimidating language of them all. The French talk so fast that I could have sworn that they were born with particularly flexible tongues. My tongue was as stiff as a tree.
I begged the counselor to put me anywhere but French. I told her that I was destined to fail that class. She pursed her lips one last time, “Honey, you have got to trust us when it comes to language placement.” That night, I begged my parents to put me in public school.
The next day, I walked begrudgingly into Monsieur Badeau’s classroom. The white board read “Français pour les nuls” (French for Dummies). M. Badeau was a tall, dark man. He wore ironed jeans and a breezy blue shirt. He was reading a Flaubert novel as I walked into class. The bell rang. We all sat there, waiting for him to start. Finally, he got up. He walked straight to the board without even looking at us. Suddenly, he was shouting at us in rapid French as he scribbled characters onto the board. “Bon, il y a des choses de savoir pour ce cours. Il faut que vous étudiez tous les jours.” He accidently dropped the marker. “Putain!” The person to the right of me chuckled, “That’s ‘fuck’ in French.” Instantly, M. Badeau slapped a book onto my desk, “Putain, silence!”
All I could make out that day was “putain” and “français.” I was so mad. I could see the Spanish students across the hall. They all looked so happy. They were the lucky ones. We were the ones getting spit on and cursed at in a language I knew absolutely nothing about.
In the last minute of the class, M. Badeau paused. He looked at us all for a long moment and then, for the first and last time in my life, spoke in English. “If you guys want to learn le français, you have to study every day. Putain, I don’t care how you do it; flash cards, movies, music, whatever… just do it.”
His words stuck in my head. “Study every day. Every day.” I don’t know why, but I decided right then and there that I was going to become fluent in three years. It just clicked. It was that simple. I opened my desk drawer, pulled out a fresh stack of flashcards, and wrote down ten vocabulary words. “Putain (nf): a colloquial term meaning whore, bitch, fuck, bastard, damn, shit, slut.” That was all that it took. I was off.
Eight hundred flashcards later, I stepped into a biology classroom in France. Fifty people at once crashed their cheeks into mine, welcoming me to their humble village and asking me if “fanny” means “butt” in English. I had completely forgotten that the French greet with kisses, and was a bit taken aback. I searched through the vocabulary in my head so I could tell them that “fanny” does indeed mean “butt.” I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. They all cocked their heads at me, waiting for the American girl to confirm that their friend “Fanny” is named after a butt. All I could do was nod my head, and they burst out in laughter. “Aha! Fanny! Tu es un cul! Tu es a BUTT!”
A girl named Ethel offered to sit next to me during biology. I smiled shyly. As I became acclimated to the environment, my nose stiffened by the overwhelming smell of formaldehyde. Suddenly, I noticed that there are thirty dead frogs spread out on the desks. French frogs. How appropriate. I sat next to Ethel, who immediately took my hand and drew an American flag on it. “Hello, funny American girl. What is up, home dog?” I smiled at her, still unable to speak. She laughed, “Tu es timide !” Nod, nod, nod. All I did was nod.
The biology course lasted three hours. THREE HOURS. I dedicated my life to French and had made sure that I would avoid biology at all costs. Here I was, jetlagged, speechless, and enduring three hours of biology.
The first week was a bit of a nightmare. I had to greet every person in the room by kissing their cheeks, as if my life depended on it. If someone was sitting underneath a table (which there surprisingly was always at least one floor dweller), I had to crawl underneath and smash my cheek onto theirs. Several boys had pitched the idea of creating a clothing line called, “Fashion Boy” and asked me to give them connections in L.A. My host student, Coline, barely talked to me. Ethel must have called me “home dog” a hundred times. And through all that happened that week, the only word I could really make out was “putain.” Everything began and ended with that fucking word.
At the end of my second week in Paimpont, I was told that my host student was going to have a sweet sixteen birthday party. Her parents rented out a small building just outside of the village. They picked us up from school and drove us straight to the building with four cases of champagne. They each smashed our cheeks and told us that they would come pick us up at eight o’clock the next morning. “Quoi!? What!?” No one had told me that we would be spending an entire night in this building. An hour later, the entire grade arrived with suitcases full of beer and alcohol. Someone brought moose liver.
Ethel stuck by me. “Home dog, why are you so shy?” I explained to her in broken French that I felt anxious about speaking and could not find the words. She put her arm around my shoulders, “American girl, t’inquiètes pas! Do not worry! All of these boys are in love with you. Here, drink a beer. You will feel better.” Four beers later, I was avidly debating politics in French. We sang Justin Bieber songs at the top of our lungs and danced like there was no tomorrow. My barrier had broken and I was flying through those eight hundred flashcards effortlessly. Several boys asked me if they could teach me what a French kiss was, and I eagerly accepted them all.
M. Badeau said that all I needed to speak French was to study. That night, I discovered that he was completely wrong. The only thing that you really need to speak French was four bottles of beer and moose liver. It was that simple.
Putain, if only I had known that from the beginning.