Thursday, March 28, 2013

Paris, here I come!

             In my four years at Alliance Française, a French-language high school in Tel-Aviv, we all became Francophiles. We belted out French songs, staged school plays in French—and cursed in French. A romantic teenager with three language at my disposal and a flare for writing, I penned poetry in French.
            The summer after our junior year, a selected group of students was sent to France on a month-long mission, which included almost three weeks in Paris. That memorable first trip turned up decades later as the seed of inspiration for my novel JERUSALEM MAIDEN.
            Somewhere along the journey into French language and culture, a dream sprouted: one day I would spend a semester at the famous Sorbonne university in Paris, where I would study Civilisation Française.
            Life, though, had its own agenda, and the dream never materialized. And while in the decades that followed I visited Paris numerous times, I put behind not only that youthful fantasy, but also the language I had once loved. In my twenties, I moved to New York, made English my daily language—and soon the language of my career, first in business, and then in the literary world. When my American husband and I traveled through France, I acted in restaurants and stores as an American tourist that did not even speak French. The Francophile part of my life was erased.
            And then, in 2005, while penning a novel set in Jerusalem, my protagonist surprised me and took off to Paris. Only after I packed my bags and chased her there did I realize that unbeknown to me, the author, her move had been motivated by my very first school trip in the 1960s. It was then that I had imagined my grandmother—the inspiration for JERUSALEM MAIDEN—as an artist there during the avant-garde era.
            What did I know about Paris at that historical time? In the two weeks prior to leaving home to follow my protagonist, I trained my oral muscles and grey cells with verb conjugations and nuanced pronunciation. My husband was amused when I walked around the house mouthing forgotten words and phrases. 
            In Paris, for the first time in decades, I spoke the language as I became a flaneuse, a wanderer, now exploring the city though the eyes of my protagonist in 1924, at a time when most houses had no running water, few had electricity or gas lines, and sanitation services were provided by the slop wagon into which residents emptied their chamber pots. I sat at dusty libraries and leafed through tomes of history—in French.
            In 2010, when JERUSALEM MAIDEN was preparing for publication by HarperCollins, I set out on another project, investigating the history of a painting that had been in my family. I grew up with this museum-size canvas and was so attached to it that after my sister inherited it I commissioned an artist to copy it. Now I contacted long lost cousins, a brother and a sister whom I had met only once forty years earlier, and whose grandparents had originally purchased this painting. Raised in Germany, the brother and sister—now with their respective spouses—lived in different parts of France. The first phone conversation with the sister turned into an almost two-hours long chat. A week later I spoke with her brother, and after forty delightful minutes, he put his French-speaking wife on the phone. Like the others, she was warm and delighted at the renewed contact.
            Three months later, my husband and I piggy-backed a trip to Europe with a get-together in Paris with these cousins. The three couples spent fabulous four days, where we bonded beautifully. Since both my cousins’ spouses spoke no English, I chatted in French from morning to night. My husband, who spoke only English showed the best of his bonhomie self. Although my grammar was far from perfect, it was clear that it was intuitively ingrained, as only someone who had once been fluent in the language could have mastered.
            A year ago, in the spring of 2012, Ron and I visited each of the cousins in their respective hometown, where again I spoke only French. Soon, I was flooded with memories of my high school years when the language and its cultural nuances had meant so much to me.
            This past Fall, at a conversation with a young man who was on remission from cancer, he brought up the question of a bucket list. “What would you do if you had only one year to live?” he asked.
            After some thought, I replied, “I’ll eat chocolate.”
            He burst out laughing. “That’s it? You’ve done and seen everything? I haven’t even been to California!”
            Later, I reflected on my pathetically short wish list. Had I really accomplished everything I could ever dream of? Or did I not dare dream outside the obvious, beyond what was available to me?
            My old desire to spend a semester in the Sorbonne popped in my head. At this time in my life, nothing held me back from making it happen: I had the financial means, my children were emancipated adults, my husband a busy independent man. Besides being French-challenged, he had always enjoyed Paris for just a few days at a time. On the other hand, he always supported my interests. With his unending encouragement, I had blossomed.
The first problem I encountered was that the student body at the Sorbonne that had once been so appealing, hadn't changed: they were still twenty year olds. And a semester was too long to tear myself from my life.  
I approached my husband with the request of a birthday gift of only one month in which I would tailor my own language and culture program. Sure enough, a quick Google search brought up language immersion classes for business executives, presumably in their 40s rather than in their 20s. I discovered groups of expat writers that conducted French conversations, and I signed up for lectures about art and theater along with architectural walks. I would take my exercise and dance classes in French and would even play Mah-Jongg in French.
There was a moment—turned into hours--in which I panicked.
In today’s world of Internet, I could view photographs of each furnished apartment from every possible angel. It would be my home for the month, a place to cocoon alone. But that’s when reality hit me. I had never been alone! Even in the solitude of writing, Ron had always been in the background. After thirty-five years together, I was accustomed to his ever-present care and friendship. Since he struggled with the same separation anxiety, I had to keep my bravado. I forged on with my plan--or my bucket list would once again be reduced to only one thing: chocolate….

I will be leaving for Paris in 8 days. Stay tuned.

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Novelist Talia Carner lives in New York. Her latest novel, JERUSALEM MAIDEN (HarperCollins, 2011) deals with the struggle between freedom and faith. (      


  1. safe travels Talia, and you must PROMISE to speak Francais this time, none of that American tourist stuff. Believe!

  2. Maybe I will write French poetry again? (I don't write it in any other language....)