Wednesday, June 24, 2009

My Journey to France and to French

This post will be the first to originate from our new American headquarters in Philadelphia. My name is David Donaldson, and not only am I the new COO of Language Routes, but I am also a new learner of French. (Very new, as the early recipients of my first Language Routes email newsletter (sign up here) will attest, given my misspelling of je m'appelle.) My weekly entries will relay any breaking news from the US office, and will also chronicle my efforts to learn French as a forty-something year-old who has never learned a spoken language other than English (middle school, high school and college were Latin, Latin and more Latin.)

I recently traveled to France for the first time, and a Francophile was born within me almost immediately. My first weekend was spent in Burgundy, at the home of some friends in Cravant (a tiny, very charming hillside village near Auxerre.) The rapeseed was in full golden bloom, the weather was warm and sunny, and the weekend was filled with great conversation, sumptuous meals and the steady flow of fine Burgundian vin rouge.

It was after my arrival in Lyon that I began to realize how much I was missing due to my lack of French. The art and architecture of the city was awe-inspiring, the food and wine again ranked among the best I have ever experienced, and the people were open, friendly and helpful - never was I shunned, ridiculed or made to feel stupid, no matter how much I had earned it. When I asked, for instance, why I didn't see any guests or doormen at the Hotel de Ville (pictured above, behind the magnificent Bartholdi fountain on the Place des Terreaux) I was told, very kindly, that Hotel de Ville means City Hall. We had a small laugh, and I was informed that it was a very common mistake from non-French speakers.

The humor of my next misstep didn't become evident to me until hours later. The desk clerk at my hotel spoke very little English, and after I had checked in and gone to my room to unpack I returned to the lobby and asked him for some ice and a glass (you may see where this is going already.) He ducked into the back and returned a moment later with a bowl filled with ice.

"Merci," I said. "and a glass?"

He motioned to the bowl. "Oui, monsieur. Glace."

"Yes, thank you, but I also need a glass."

And so on. Maybe not Abbott and Costello, but enough to make me laugh out loud when I realized what had happened much later.

So my goal now is to be prepared with at least some rudimentary conversational skills before my next trip to France and our home offices in Lyon. I'm taking lessons at my local Alliance Francaise (with the incredibly engaging Marie-Laure), looking into hiring a tutor, and of course utilizing those Language Routes products that are more beginner-friendly. I'm even finding that Bien-dire magazine, which is mostly targeted at more advanced learners than myself, has some very helpful content - such as the article in the most recent issue (No. 64) detailing, with images, common terms heard in a bar or café ("une tasse" "boire un coup" etc.)

Kari's fascinating posts will continue, but please check back weekly to see what's happening here in Philadelphia. And if you have any stories of funny or rewarding moments in your journey to speak French, please do share them.

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