No more French?

Photo: The classroom where I spent two semesters with Monsieur Carlier. Yes, I was there this morning before sunrise. © 2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

It’s official. I’m not a French student anymore.

That’s right. I just finished up my third and final semester of French courses at the Cours de Civilisation Française de la Sorbonne. Last week, I wrote a 1,540-word paper on French-Canadian literature. Then, I spent an hour and a half answering the question “Why can we speak of a myth of progress?” for a “Myth and Modern Thought” seminar. On Saturday, I took my final exam in French grammar, reading comprehension, and written expression. Today, I cleared the final hurdle: the oral exam.

The oral exam has always been the most intimidating for me. Despite the fact that it only counts for maybe 10 or 20 percent of the final grade and only lasts for 10 or 15 minutes (as opposed to 3 hours for the written exam), there’s something infinitely more nerve-racking about sitting at a table across from two French professors and speaking in French about an excerpt from a work of French literature. To be honest, I think I spent more time studying for the oral than I did for the written exam: reading and re-reading eight different texts as disparate as Montesquieu’s Les Lettres Persanes and Albert Camus’s Le Premier Homme, summarizing each one, reviewing the more esoteric vocabulary, identifying the major themes, and then worrying about my pronunciation when it would come time to read aloud!

This morning, I was very lucky. I ended up drawing at random Baudelaire‘s L’Albatros. You might remember that this is the poem I never got around to memorizing for a recitation earlier this semester, despite our professor’s pleas. Of course, I didn’t have to recite it this morning, but I did have to read it aloud and—just to let you know—even reading French poetry with a English-speaking mouth isn’t an easy thing to do. But I did it and did it pretty well, if I do say so myself. It’s a good thing I practiced a few times with Michel this weekend! I explained the “story” of the poem and then moved on to discuss the analogy: the poet, like the albatross, is a “different” being, beautiful and graceful in his own world, but clumsy, misunderstood, and sometimes ridiculed when “brought down to earth” among the rest of us. I even got to talk about neoplatonism. How often does one get a chance to do that in an average day? After my ten minutes were up, it was time for the next student … and I was relieved to have reached the end.

The CCFS location on rue du Fouarre where I spent two of my three semesters ©2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

Now that it’s all over, though, I’m already getting nostalgic. I’ll miss my classmates and my professor, who was one of the best I’ve ever had. Of course, as long as I live in France and as long as I have a French family (no matter where I live), I’ll keep learning French. It just won’t be in a classroom anymore … and that makes me just a little mélancolique.

© 2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood …

… And sorry I could not travel both / And be one traveler …”

— “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost

“But, what does Robert Frost have to do with your life in France?” you’re probably wondering. “Shouldn’t you be citing Verlaine or Prévert or somebody else with a French name?”

Well, as a matter of fact, I should be. Just last Thursday, Monsieur Carlier, my French teacher at CCFS, encouraged us all to recite “L’Albatros” by the French poet Charles Baudelaire … or at least some part of it. It is, after all, the first poem that we’ve studied this semester. In the alternative, however—knowing that most of us wouldn’t be able to recite a French sonnet, whether out of timidity or just sheer laziness—we could recite something in our native language. This was a French class, though, so we would have to explain (in French, of course) the meaning of that incomprehensible barrage of foreign words, be they Russian, Japanese … or English. Continue reading “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood …