I got this hair-brained idea last summer that I wanted to learn a language. It all started when I went to Paris with my daughter, who happily chattered her way through Paris cafes and department stores, through the Uzes market negotiating for AOC goat cheese and brightly colored napkins, ordering the bits of duck we cooked on a grill at our table outdoors in the plaza in front of our glorious, sun-drenched apartment. There she was, petite and lanky and gorgeous, perfectly dressed and coiffed in that casual but perfect teenage way she has, ordering le chocolat chaud and canard-being told everywhere what a great accent she had-while I couldn’t even ask where the bathroom was.
One day in Paris, queued up to commune with the vast collection of human bones in the Catacombs, I was desperate for a bathroom, so I left Lizzy to hold our place in line while I tried to find one. I couldn’t ask anyone, so I spent five desperate minutes trying to figure out how to open the door to a shuttered transit information shed, before I finally realized it wasn’t a public toilet.
I was completely dependent on Lizzy, who, at 14, translated when it was something she wanted to do, and if she didn’t-well…I hated that. Hated how vulnerable and isolated it made me feel. I hated that I had forgotten my dismal grasp of 7th grade French. All I remembered was bonjour and au revoir and Ou est la biblioteque? The only new phrase I mastered during our vacation in France was, “L’addition, si’l vous plais”-the check please.
“I should learn a language,” I decided. I want to travel more as I move in to this next phase of my life. I know I used to suck at languages and I probably suck more now, what with chemo brain and all, but why not try it? It will at least exercise my atrophied brain. What have I got to lose? Besides my pride, my dignity, my self-esteem, and my former image of myself as a “smart cookie”-not much.
So when I got back to Santa Cruz, I actually did something about it. I contacted the language school downtown: Aux Trois Pommes. I think that means the three apples-and I signed up for a class. The first thing I had to do was decide between Spanish and French. At first, I thought I should study French since Lizzy speaks fluently. My reasoning went like this: “Well, we could talk French together over dinner. In the car on the way home from school. On walks to the beach.” Not. Whatever was I thinking? She’s a sophomore in high school and the last thing she wants to do is talk French with her pathetically incompetent mother, who can’t remember anything and just doesn’t have a clue.