I felt heavy and sluggish, jet-lagged, my mind slightly foggy. It was all I could do to take in even a sliver of the Parisian beauty. Plus, I was nervous. Could I still make my way in French as I once had?
The last time I traveled to France on one of these “get no sleep, sit up straight all night in a ridiculously cramped airline seat” adventures, I was much younger. How long had it been? Fifteen years perhaps. Still, I had a strategy for how to make it through this first day of my two-week stay.
My plan went like this: I would make myself stay awake all day, walking and touring with perhaps a stop at a gallery or two or maybe a stroll through the Tuileries. Every time I felt I couldn’t go any further, I would stop somewhere for a little snack or a coffee. Then the small burst of energy these reinforcements provided would propel me along until dinner. I would stand with another American or two at the entrance to the restaurant, waiting for it to open, and be among their earliest diners. If I could hold up through a light dinner, I could race back to the hotel and fall into bed. And if all went according to plan, I’d be in good shape in the morning. This strategy had worked well for me years ago when I made this trip with some regularity.
But time—and let’s face it, age—had changed me, and I wasn’t sure I could pull it off. Dragging along, I reminded myself that nothing needed to be accomplished that day. My goal was to reacquaint myself with Paris, test my French, and make it to my bed in one piece.
France has always had a special appeal for me. The beauty of its cities and countryside, the creativity of its artists, the flair and style of its people. But my favorite part of being there has always been the language, my own personal participation in the beauty of France.
The very first day I heard French spoken, I was sitting in an eighth-grade classroom in Cleveland, Ohio. “Bonjour!” said Sister Ancilla, a nun at our school who had studied in Canada. Even the sound of that one word gave me a tingling sensation. All of thirteen years old, I vowed to myself at that very moment, “I’m going to speak French!” From then on, I never stopped studying it, fighting with grammar, vocabulary, and accent. For many years, my teachers were Catholic nuns at the schools I attended.
After Sister Ancilla there was a beautiful young nun with a soft and gentle accent who loved the language and was delighted to have this eager high school kid to teach. In college, where I majored in French, I met a homesick Irish sister who gave me private lessons that must have taken her back to her own early education in Bretagne. I stumbled through, year after year, never a star student, but always an enthusiastic one. Slowly, I learned to speak French well enough to get by the very first time I visited France at age nineteen. It wasn’t until I was well into my twenties that I became what anyone could actually call fluent.
Having the ability to speak another language with ease never stopped surprising me. It seemed a miracle that these words flowed from me, bypassing my English altogether. I celebrated dreaming in French, which I took as a sign that this beautiful language was embedding itself in my brain and in my heart.
At age 25, then a graduate student pursuing a PhD in French, I spent a year living in Tours, a beautiful city in the heart of the Loire Valley. One day during that year, I rode in a car with a group of French people. I’d recently heard a joke that I thought was very funny, and I wanted to tell it. But I was afraid. I’d never told a joke in French before. I fretted that maybe I didn’t really understand it thoroughly. Was it off-color in a way I didn’t understand? Would I be making fun of someone or something I shouldn’t? I ran through it nervously in my mind. Deciding to risk it, I jumped into the conversation with my joke, telling it calmly and easily, as if this was something I did all the time and hadn’t spent the last several minutes repeating it in my head. The group screamed with laughter, both at the joke and because I, the American, was telling it. I could barely believe it. I had arrived! I had really arrived!
But that had been so many years ago. Now, two decades later, my French seemed lost. I wandered the streets barely remembering how to navigate them. The simplest vocabulary eluded me. How did I order a coffee, buy a train pass, ask for directions? My mind was racing, in English sadly, as I scolded myself sharply for allowing my language skills to get so rusty.
Against the odds, it seemed, I made it to dinnertime. Was Léon de Bruxelles still around, I wondered—that funny little restaurant where every dish featured mussels? Ah, Paris! Only here could such a place thrive. And thrive it had. I headed towards it at the earliest hour I thought they might take me in. Surprisingly, Léon’s place was already abuzz with activity. “I wish I’d known I could have come earlier in the day,” I thought, as I pictured my exhausted and crumpled frame seated on a park bench with an ice cream cone three hours earlier.
A young man showed me briskly to a tiny table squeezed neatly into a row of them, all already occupied by chattering diners. We were packed in tightly, so much so that I could easily see what my neighbor was eating without the slightest turn of my head. I settled in, happy at least to be about to eat one of my favorite foods and also to be just that much closer to sleep.
The restaurant was electric with lights and sounds and movement. Bright yellow half walls that seemed oddly unappetizing cut the large space into several smaller ones. Thin-hipped waiters rushed through the narrow spaces between tables, dangerously balancing large trays of food or pitchers of water over the diners’ heads. Beer bottles popped and clanged all around and the snap of wine corks punctuated the high-decibel chatter of the crowd. Busboys hurried back and forth tossing plates, glasses, and silverware loudly into tubs and carting them off to a backroom. Each time the door to the kitchen opened, I caught a glimpse of frantic activity: water rushing from a tap; heat and steam rising from massive pots over crackling open burners; waiters reciting their customers’ orders; cooks tossing mussels into large black pots or stacking crisp, thin French fries into tall funnel-shaped cages lined with paper. The plates were then rushed to waiting customers by those thin-hipped waiters, who dodged past each other with barely a nod. All accomplished with dramatic flair.
Seated near me were several couples deep in conversation. I strained to hear them over the din. One couple had gotten into what appeared to be a heated argument. He gestured and scowled as he spoke. She, on the other hand, responded with a low growl, her words landing hard between them. I focused my hearing there, trying to understand what they were saying, trying to catch any part of it I could. But their argument whizzed past me like a rough wind. I understood nothing of what was being said around me. I was trapped in a swirling storm of language, foreign and beyond my comprehension.
Disheartened, I leaned back and reached for the wine my waiter had just plopped down on the table. With the first sip, I felt myself relax, surrendering perhaps to the fact that I had clearly lost a great deal, if not all, of the language I had worked so hard to master when I was younger. With a second sip, I put aside the harsh recriminations that were still ringing in my head and closed my eyes.
Suddenly I felt something shift. It was as if the clattering noises of the restaurant had slipped away from me, receding into some foggy distance. The sound of dishes being handled, corks and bottles, water and whistling steam, not to mention the many conversations churning about me, somehow became muffled and distant. It was as if I were hearing them from an adjacent room.
With no warning, I felt and heard a very sharp click in my head that echoed momentarily in my ears and left me in a silent vacuum. Then, slowly, soft and gentle noises rose up around me. Conversations, waiters, and all the rest blended together sweetly into a completely comprehensible mix. I turned my attention to a small group seated nearby and couldn’t believe how easily I understood what they were saying. The arguing couple’s words jumped out to me, and I eavesdropped on their harsh conversation. When the waiter approached to take my order, I chatted with him comfortably.
It was back, as simply as that. My French had somehow sprung back into my consciousness! The words rose from someplace very deep within me, someplace completely unrelated to my English-speaking self. There was another me in there, a French-speaking me, and somehow, I had let her out.
But what had actually happened? What was that click I’d heard and felt, that sudden jolt that threw open the doors to my French?
I reasoned that, in a more relaxed and resigned state, I’d gotten out of my own way. When my overall nervousness and all my mental scolding stopped, a long-buried skill resurfaced.
I was so happy to have my French back that I just went on to enjoy my time in Paris with no more thought to that puzzling moment of transformation in the restaurant. But later, when I thought back on this moment, I was shocked at how thoroughly I had blocked myself. How completely my overactive mind, with its nervous self-consciousness, had kept me from allowing the French Susan to emerge. But it was more than that.
Mulling it over, I focused first on that jolt, the extraordinary moment of the click. That it happened so instantaneously, that the French opened up to me once again so completely, felt mystical, or at least magical. And I have long believed that I have a deep spiritual connection to France and to French. Many times, when I’ve spoken French, I’ve sensed that it arose from some place beyond my mind. That it came up from some deeper, older place—my soul, perhaps, or at least some part of my subconscious. Often, speaking French has felt miraculous, a facet of myself that I came into this life already possessing, a talent I simply needed to cultivate. I’ve been happy to accept this as my explanation and believe I will always experience speaking French in this way.
But today, looking back, I have an additional explanation. It took a few sips of wine for me to relax enough that day to lay down my overactive mind. The French was indeed buried deep within me somewhere, but how was it to rise to the top with all my worry and self-recrimination? I was too busy judging myself a flop for my French to emerge. I stood in my own way. Not until I surrendered, relaxed, let go could I speak French as before. And when I stepped out of my judgmental mind, my French burst forth.
How many times do we do this to ourselves in life—tell ourselves what we cannot do instead of allowing our truest selves to shine? How many magical moments are we missing? And how many different aspects of ourselves lie buried deep within us just waiting to be expressed? It’s never too late to uncover our buried treasures.
If ever there is a time to quiet our critical selves and let all of our hidden parts glow, it must surely be old age. The integration of our many parts, or at least the chance of such an integration, ought to be a gift of old age. Our last chance to consciously reject that inner critic.
Who knows what kinds of miracles are buried deep in our brains, our hearts, or even our souls, lifetimes of riches buried deep within us? What is there to lose by throwing open the doors? Or more importantly, what might there be to gain?
Author's CommentMy adult life has been filled with moments like the one described in this story. Moments that have a mysterious, often mystical feel to them. I’m convinced that we all have experiences through which we connect with a deeper part of ourselves or of the universe. And they are life-changing if we allow them to be.