In which I may be in kindergarten

At least it feels that way…I’m attempting to learn French. Not fluent French, mind you. I’m not after reading Baudelaire in his native tongue. But we’re heading to London and Paris this summer, and I’d dearly love to at least be able to order food and hail a taxi and buy a lipstick. (“Rouge, s’il vous plait.”)

I always meant to learn French. It was my first choice in school, but–as my parents pointed out–we lived 150 miles from the Mexican border. Spanish was a much more practical option. So I took it. For six years. By the time I was a senior in high school, I was reading Cervantes and Garcia Lorca. I placed fourth in Texas in a statewide vocabulary competition. And since I haven’t used my Spanish since I graduated, I can now remember how to order toast. Maybe.

Before our trip to Italy a few years ago, I didn’t have the chance to pick up much Italian. I had about half a dozen nouns under my belt and that was it. But what I discovered, much to my delight, was that I FELT Italian. Something about the rhythm of it worked for me. It is a musical language, and I responded to it like a groupie. Within a few days, I was managing so well that a shopkeeper got offended when I didn’t speak Italian to her, thinking my failure was one of discourtesy rather than ability. (Apparently it’s possible to say “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Italian” TOO well.)

But just those few phrases of Italian made it infinitely easier and more comforting to navigate a city where I was a minority. With that in mind, I’m determined to hit Paris more accomplished. I’ve started daily lessons with the Duolingo app; I have the Berlitz 5-minute a day workbook, and I’ve bought what look like enormous laminated cheat sheets crammed so tightly with verbs and grammar rules I almost need a microscope to read them.

And it’s daunting. French is lovely, perhaps the most poetic and luxurious language in existence. It’s the language of my maternal line. My mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother was a native-born Frenchwoman. Is language carried in the blood? Some whisper of the memory of it encoded into our DNA? I wish. My ability to mimic accents has always been fairly good, but while Italian–another ancestral tongue–came as easily to me as rocking my baby, French puts up a little resistance. It will not let me in easily. There’s some function of the mouth, a way of setting the vowels forward on the tongue, that escapes me. So many words end with the lips pursed, as if bestowing a kiss or primming in disapproval. And the times I do get it right, it feels as if I’m getting away with something, as if I’ve broken off a little piece of vocabulary that doesn’t belong to me and run away with it. I wonder if anything about this language is going to feel like it’s MINE. It belonged to my ancestors, and I wish somehow I could believe it will belong to me. I want to reclaim at least a little of it, to carry on a conversation with my heritage. To which I suppose every native-born speaker of French would think, “Bonne chance!”