Friday, May 9, 2014

The Allure Of A First Love


            What had attracted me, at age fourteen, to choose a long daily commute to a high school far from my home, when I could have attended a similarly high academic school merely two blocks away?
            French. Having mastered basic conversational English, I was ready for the challenge of taking a second foreign language. I also loved the new, spacious building of the new school in the outskirts of the city, so unlike the crammed classrooms in the center city of Tel-Aviv where I lived.
            We, the student body of Alliance Française, soon became Francophiles. We loved the language and the music of it. We staged plays in French, sang songs in French, and cursed each other in French. As a romantic teenager with three languages at my disposal, I wrote poetry in French.
            Fast forward, in my twenties, I moved to the United States and found myself immersed in the language and culture of my adoptive land. I soon entered the corporate world, where I never encountered Israelis or French, for that matter. In the early 1980s, it was a world of white American men, and I was a woman breaking the glass ceiling while raising a family in secrecy, because my boss told me, “We don’t hire women with children.”
            Many years later, in 2005, I was deep into a second career as a novelist, in English, when my protagonist took off from Jaffa to Paris. I had not planned that move as I was writing Jerusalem Maiden. What was she doing there? I had to follow her.
            In the two weeks between Esther’s fleeing to Paris and my arrival to discover her whereabouts, I bought a French dictionary. For the first time in decades, I knew, I had to use the language. I reflected on all my visits over thirty years to France with my American husband, where I acted like an American tourist, never using the language in which I had once been fluent. I never even asked a waiter, in French, for a glass of water….
            Now I followed Esther in Paris of 1924, and realized it had been the avant-garde era. What was Jewish life here between World War I and II? I found myself at libraries poring over tomes of material, in French. For the first time in decades, I actually spoke French with art mavens and historians. I was surprised at how much of the language I had retained, and disappointed at how much of it I had forgotten.
            This is when, seeing the city through the eyes of my protagonist, living there, that I made Paris my own.
            But there was no time to reflect on any of it. I had a novel to finish and a life to live in New York.
            In 2009, I reconnected via Facebook with a woman who had attended my French high school. Our lives had intersected many times, starting even before our births, when our respective grandfathers had been business partners. She still lived in Israel, but in recent years had purchased a magnificent apartment in Paris. I was delighted when she invited me to stop there on my way from Tel-Aviv to New York.
            The weekend I visited, I accompanied her to a day-long party at close friends’ castle. The family welcomed me warmly, and for the first time in so many years I actually had long, social conversations in my no-longer-good French.
            The following summer, while waiting for Jerusalem Maiden to be published, I decided to trace the history of a painting that had been in my family since the mid 1930s. It had belonged to the grandparents of a pair of cousins, a brother and a younger sister, each of whom I had met only once, in our youth. I found them both living in two areas in France, married to French-only speaking spouses.
            The bond was instantaneous, starting with the one hour and forty-five minute phone conversation with the sister, and followed by an hour-long conversation a week later with the brother, who then put his Swiss-French wife on the phone. Turned out that while they had not been on my radar screen all those years, they were up-to-date on my life.
            Since my husband had to be in Europe for a meeting in November 2010, we all decided to meet in Paris. The three couples spent four glorious days together, and although my husband speaks only English, he got along extremely well with the French-only speaking spouses. And I had to chat with them from morning to night, filling all the blanks of our lives. I managed well enough to speak, but was fully aware of how poor was my language level.
            In 2012, in the midst of an extensive two-year book tour for Jerusalem Maiden, I had a conversation with a young man in New York who was on remission from cancer.
            He asked me, “If you had one year to live, what would you do?”
            “I’d eat chocolate,” I said.
            He looked at me with astonishment. “That’s it? You’ve done everything, you’ve been everywhere?”
I gave a humble nod, “Yes.”
            Back home, I thought that my response had been pathetic. I no longer had dreams. Had there been something I ever wanted and simply suppressed?
            Back in high school, I had dreamed to one day take a semester at the Sorbonne in Civilization Française. But after a two-year service in the Israel Defense Force, I had to rush my university studies along.
Suddenly, this old dream began to bloom. Studying in Paris had been the only thing I had once desired strongly, yet never fulfilled.
            There were two issues with reviving this dream: First, I did not wish to uproot my life for a whole semester. The other was that the student body, which had so appealed to me when I was fifteen and sixteen, was still made of twenty-year-olds….
            I broached the subject with my husband and asked it as a birthday present—not the funding as the time off to do something he had no interest in sharing. I coached my request for only one month, and, thanks to the internet, was able to stitch together a full day program of language and culture immersion.
            April 2013 was my debut month, the first time ever to be on my own, (an experience that I chronicled in a series of blogs.) When Ron visited for a few days, a visit that cut on my language immersion, I asked him “to try to incorporate Paris into our life.”
            “I am not saying ‘No’” he replied.
            And so, today, a year later, we arrived in Paris for four weeks, this time with the idea of feeling the pulse of life here. My French is improved, and although I had not reached the level of my post high-school years, I will take only a few classes. I’ve been learning some slang; even though I will not use it, I must understand it.
            At dinner at a sidewalk café, we chatted with a couple from Bordeaux. The wife commented on my excellent vocabulary, and when I expressed astonishment, she said that all I needed was the proficiency of speed. Luckily, she hasn’t seen my writing samples.
            As Ron and I are settling in the apartment we’ve rented in the heart of the historic Saint Germaine area, I am feeling the return of that first blush, of first love, and I feel happy about somehow living a version of my youthful dream.
            Stay tuned.
 (To read previous Paris posts, please click  )