That Moment in Montmartre

By Edith Gallagher Boyd

It was during the summer of nineteen seventy-two. Newly graduated from college, I travelled through Europe, but mostly stayed in France. Many American college students travelled through Europe at this time, back-packs secured as they bought their Euro rail train passes and tried to find lodging a few hairs better than youth hostels.

Many baby-boomers’ fathers had been able to take advantage of a generous GI Bill, and became educated and prosperous. One could argue that these veteran parents produced a nation of spoiled brats, the Pepsi Generation crowding the bistros of Milan or Paris having found ways to avoid the killing fields of Vietnam. One could also make the case for a generation of creative, progressive individuals who tried to dismantle the shackles of racism and sexism as they carved new paths into adulthood.

Those questions are not the questions, insights, or memories of this essay. I’m interested in sharing the evolution of my French language skills, an extremely personal remembrance of the moment in Montmartre when something magical happened. I had a linguistics professor who used to speak of fluency emerging in children in their native language and in students pursuing foreign languages. When she referenced it, I cherished the dream of it, but didn’t picture its happening.

I had the misfortune of a late introduction to the French language. My classmates and I needed to make Latin a priority in our Catholic high school as the Catholic mass was still in Latin at the time. So it was not until the tenth grade that I fell in love at first listen to Parisian French. My lay teacher was from Paris and had the most gorgeous spoken voice and she threw us into an immersion course in French, speaking English only in emergency situations. She was not a good disciplinarian, and I felt annoyed at my classmates who misbehaved and caused interruptions in the flow of this magical language.

When I entered the university, I immediately chose French as my major, caring not a bit about its occupational usefulness, but only looking forward to building on the base given to me in secondary school. I lived with my parents and commuted to an urban university, and had ample time for studying and few opportunities for carousing with the party crowd. I wanted the latter, but accepted the former – a disciplined life of working at my bedroom desk after dinner with my parents.

Upon graduating from college, my parents gifted me with airplane tickets to Europe and I waitressed at a nearby restaurant to earn my spending money. My bosses were the parents of a friend for whom I worked before, and they were aware of my travel plans and were willing to fit me in.

I made the decision to travel alone so that I could immerse myself in the French language and culture without being polluted by my native language and idioms. Seeing the Eiffel Tower and the Champs-Élysées for the first time was most likely akin to many others’ awe and admiration at the sight of them. These pictures in French and tourist books were real places with real people strolling about. I learned to savor my food and eat slowly in Paris cafés. It shocked me that wine was more affordable than soft drinks. I adjusted to several weeks in Paris and could feel my need for the English language receding

My vacation in Nice, France enhanced my ability to think and speak in French as the residents and business owners spoke a slower more understandable French than Parisians, and seemed to have a laissez-faire attitude about imperfect French. My fluency in southern France was beginning to emerge. If my small room had a television, I watched and listened to French programs and didn’t struggle if I missed a word.  I remember  letting the language wash over me naturally which I believe is the experience of infants and toddlers as they piece together their native language.

During my first stay in Paris that summer, my French language skills had improved greatly from my college years, but it wasn’t until my return from three weeks in the south of France, that I felt confident in my command of the language with only the occasional mental search for a word or grammatical construction.

When I returned to Paris for the final weeks of my immersion in French, I met some young people in Montmartre. We would gather on a stone wall where we could sip our wine and beer and look down over the glorious lights of Paris. During one of these evenings the promise of my linguistics professor came true. I experienced fluency in French with no word searching or mental discomfort at all. The moment had happened to me and will always be a pinnacle of sort for me on many levels.

My siblings sometimes refer to me as one who speaks French fluently. I appreciate their saying it, but know it’s not the reality of the situation. Their saying it does give me an opportunity to reminisce about that moment in Montmartre when my romance language dream came true.