French At Almost 40…

Let me begin by acknowledging that learning a foreign language, once you have made it past that magical stage as a child when your brain greedily laps up languages like an illicit pre-dinner bowl of chocolate pudding, sucks.  Why? Because of the crappy “free gifts with purchase” of impatience, fatigue, and the paralysis inducing need to know “why,” that come with being an adult.  Kids don’t require a mind bending explanation of the subtleties of the subjunctive mood.  We do.

It doesn’t help that attempting to learn a language as an adult is often dismissed as a luxury or a fool’s errand.  If I had a Euro for every time someone incredulously asked, “why” or “is your office requiring that now,” after I inform them I’m taking French lessons,  I’d be the proud owner of my own pied `a terre in Paris. Despite this reality, there is nothing I hate more than having my goals scoffed at, particularly by those who probably never had the stones to even try to learn a language as an adult.

It is with that mindset that I began my odyssey to “apprendre le francais” in my 30s.  I started 7 years ago by signing up for a “Beginning French Conversation” class at the local junior college.  Going to a JC, after having completed my undergraduate education and law school, felt more like a wrong turn at a continuation high school than an institute of higher learning.  My class was a rag tag mix of adult Francophiles and those who either registered too late for the class they really wanted, or simply had to sign up for something as a condition of their probation.  Our professor, whom we simply called “Madame,” was exactly the kind hearted and patient soul that one would expect to find teaching death row inmates life skills.  Despite the fear that my class would at any time erupt into a violent mutiny, I hung on, and even enrolled in French 1, for the college bound. Sadly, I ended up dropping that class within a couple weeks, having realized I had just vigorously cross examined the guy sitting 2 desks away from me in a terrorist threats and assault with a deadly weapon case.  Gulp.

Here lies the body of a woman who dares to learn French in her 30s...

Here lies the body of a woman who dares to learn French at almost 40…

With a renewed commitment to my personal safety, I realized if I wanted to be serious about my French, I’d have to take more drastic measures.  That’s how I found myself at the  Alliance Francaise de San Francisco.  Charmed by the impressive class list, the certainty that the expense would weed out those “lacking in commitment,” the tres Parisien underground cafe, and the decidedly Euro feel, I enthusiastically said, “Oui.” In the 70 Saturdays that I spent at AFSF, my French improved by leaps and bounds.  Between the San Francisco city-chic and being surrounded by others who nerd out like me to most things French, I was in utter bliss.  But, with my heart leading me North, to The Ranch and My Beloved, I knew that my quest for French fluency would require me to be “plus debrouillarde.”

My need to be “more resourceful” immediately led me to the internet. During my search, I managed to reconnect with a former professor from the AFSF who now lives in Amsterdam.  Since 2012, we have had a weekly rendezvous via Skype that has kept my French “en forme.”  I can say with absolute certainty that the one on one attention I receive has pushed my French past the road blocks I found in group classes.  Now, I’m no longer wedged between students that either just don’t get it, or those whose French is so advanced that I feel like an idiot.  Mes lecons particulieres with Monsieur Zarhouni are my warm bowl of just right.

In addition to finding my private lessons sur Skype, I stumbled upon Conversation Exchange.  It’s a free, easy, and super cool way of meeting native French speakers from all over the world who also happen to want to learn English, with a California accent in my case.  All you have to do is create a user name and look for someone who looks cool and is at about your same level of skill.  I have found it to be very useful to learn real French and you can’t beat the price of “Free 99.”  I have to admit it feels weird at first to speak French with a complete stranger, but in some ways it’s perfect! They don’t know you, you don’t know them, if you sound like a fool, who cares?  If things get weird, simply say `A Dieu.

In the end, the most important chapter I had to study in apprendre le francais, was written by moi-meme. It’s titled, “Just Get Over Yourself.”  I found that once I let go of my fear of sounding ridiculous and tuned out negative self talk, my French advanced significantly.  I stopped cursing the fact that neither one of my parents are Francophones and just got off my ass and put in the work.  I’ve resisted the temptation to spend too much time on the “why” of those hideous grammar rules and just accept them, much as I would have if I was 7 again, instead of almost 40.

Don’t let a hate spiral of self doubt get in your way, just par-lay luh-frahn-say!  Bon Chance!

French Workbooks J’adore: Grammaire Progressive de Francais,The Ultimate French Verb Review and Practice, and anything by Annie Heminway in the Practice Makes Perfect Series.

Authentic on The Ranch: Sleepwalkers Need Not Apply

Image of Alan Alda taken at the World Science ...

Image of Alan Alda taken at the World Science Festival launch press conference (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Having spent the last day and a half at home plagued with a gastrointestinal flu that has mercilessly raged through my household, I have had a significant amount of time to just lay in bed and think.  This can be a dangerous situation, as there is nothing like a fever and dehydration to dust off the welcome mat for one’s neuroses. I’d like to think however that my thoughts flowed in a more productive direction.

Prior to being kicked in the gut by this stomach bug, I happened upon a quote from Alan Alda that I could not get out of my head: “You have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition.  What you will discover will be wonderful.  What you will discover is yourself.”

Maybe it was the fortuitous timing of reading that quote, along with being asked about “life on The Ranch,” with a rather sarcastic and skeptical tone, that really got me thinking.  What would life be like if all you ever did was live according to the confines of whatever pigeon hole others put you in?  This question isn’t new or particularly clever, but it is important.  There is no doubt in my mind that most people, myself included, would like to think they are leading a life guided entirely by their own unique compass, but getting to the truth requires stepping a bit closer to the edge and asking, “am I really?”

That 3 word question, if answered with painful honesty, is a foolproof bullshit detector.  You will feel the truth in your gut.  Ignoring that truth is a recipe for the kind of soul scorching disaster that can only come from betraying yourself.  You feel the burn every time someone tells you your ideas are stupid–and you listen.  You feel it when someone tells you that “you can’t, “you’ll never,” or the bitterly dismissive, “good luck with that.”  Not to mention the thousands of images we see everyday through print, TV, or the internet, preying upon our insecurities in order to make a profit.  Throwing your hands up (literally or figuratively) and asking, with the kind of authoritative tone that only comes from believing that you are a person worthy of respect, “Seriously?” is the first step toward calibrating your compass to your own true North.

The Ranch has been the perfect backdrop for refining the vision that I have for myself and shedding the dead weight of expectations not authentically mine. Anyone who has followed this blog will know that this is a very different world for me.  I have learned a lot.  Here, convention is more likely to get “the finger,” than compliance.  In many ways the freedom and inspiration I feel on The Ranch reminds me a lot of Paris.  Clearly, they are not the same, but both have a long history of fostering individualism in wildly varying ways.

Have I perfected the art of living with 100% authenticity?  Hardly, but then again, perfection isn’t the point.  Being the exact dog mom, writer, chef, knitting enthusiast, Francophile, organic gardener wannabe, good friend, daughter, sister, all black wearing, other half of My Beloved that I define IS.  No more sleepwalking through the day, guided by someone else’s ill conceived expectations. Being a follower was never really my thing, but everyone can benefit from a fever induced slap in the face every now and then.  No one dimensional category or pigeon hole can contain me. Now when someone asks me quizzically about my life on The Ranch, I just smile.

Make people uncomfortable. Labels and categories are only for the convenience of others.  Be your most authentic self. It doesn’t matter if you have failed in the past.  Start small.  It’s never too late.  I dare you!  Let others say what they like–trust me, they’re probably jealous.  The people who really matter will love you for it.

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