This post isn’t to announce that I’m quitting Paris to go to school in Dublin. Don’t worry: I won’t be changing the name of the blog anytime soon. Instead, this is about the building right here in Paris where I currently have my French classes.
I’ve been studying French here for a while now, but this is the first semester my classes have been at the Centre Culturel Irlandais (“Irish Cultural Centre”). I was vaguely aware of the Centre’s existence before October, but I never really knew anything about the place.
“Irish Cultural Centre, huh? That’s different,” I thought. “Meh … a cultural center for Irish folks in Paris. They’ve probably got one of those for every cultural group around.”
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.
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.
I don’t speak French fluently—not by any stretch of the imagination—but I have spent two semesters in intensive French courses. I graduated from the niveau supérieur in May with a pretty good grade (if I do say so myself), and my French family has even noted how much progress I’ve made in recent months. Just this weekend, one of my sisters-in-law remarked how much better I now comprehend naturally-spoken French … something about how they don’t have to slow down and talk to me at half-speed anymore.
Nevertheless, if you’ve ever lived abroad while being “short of fluent” in the host country’s language, you know how exhausting it is to be immersed in that language non-stop. The point comes when you just can’t process it anymore. You space out, the words just become background noise, and your brain takes off to another place where everything’s in English. I call it the saturation point, and it happened to me this weekend.