Some years ago, my girlfriend’s husband set off from Boulder, Colorado to Katmandu, Nepal on a quest to summit Mount Everest. For two months, I followed his trek on the internet: the valley, base camp, camp 1, base camp, back to the valley, camp 3, back to base. “This is acclimation,” my friend explained, “You can’t hike to the top in a single push.”
I couldn’t wrap my head around a process that willingly relinquished even a single step in the hard-fought march to the top.
His Everest climb coincided with a beautiful fall in Colorado: Crisp blue skies. Sunflower-yellow aspen leaves. The bugle calls of mating elk. During that bucolic fall, my friend’s husband lost two toes to frost bite.
Crazy? Maybe. But don’t we each have our own Everest?
Mine is completing the 3-year French curriculum: Beginner. Intermediate. Advanced. This month, I returned to French class. It’s my third foray through the intermediate level. French, it seems, requires acclimation.
My friend’s husband was a guide on that trip; one of those hardy souls who schlepps millionaires to the top of the world. On this attempt (his second) he made the south summit, 500 feet below the top. There, he waited while the client lumbered up with another guide. But they missed their cutoff. Guidelines are harsh: Make the south peek by 11:00. Not 11:01. Not 11:02. Pushing past those hard boundaries is one cause of death. They were a few minutes off; they made the hard call; they turned around.
Fortunately, nobody dies in French class.
Ten years ago, and thirty-two years after four years of high school French, I returned to class at the Alliance Francaise in Denver. My high school experience trimmed half a year off the beginner level. Two nights a week, I trekked to Denver for class. In two and a half years, I’d be finished.
That’s not what happened.
Instead, after a year, I moved to Slovakia–a country where French provides no discernible advantage. Yet, I returned to French class at the L’Institut Francaise in the French embassy. The class was rigorous; each semester concluded with a two-hour exam (versus the decidedly less rigorous wine and cheese party back home). I cried, literally cried, on the walk back to my apartment after both semester exams. Then I moved to Budapest, Hungary.
Over the following years, my French retreated to base camp, and eventually dropped into the valley. A failure.
I sometimes wonder how my friend’s husband views his two attempts at Everest. Does he focus on the fact that he stood 500 feet below the summit, a spot which a few thousand peopled have ever witnessed first-hand? Does he regret the time and money wasted? The decision to turn around? Every time he pulls on his socks, does he look at his mangled feet and ask himself “What the hell was I thinking?”
I have no idea.
No one ever lost a body part in French class.
As our first year in Paris draws to a close, I’ve only recently started back to school. The intermediate year kicked off in September, and I’ve joined it three months later. January 31st, we renew our residency for a year. We talk less and less about our exit strategy. When it comes, we will know it. And we will leave.
How much planning does it take to pack two suitcases and turn in the key?
For now, I’m committed to one goal. I want to stay until I finish the advanced level course. If I keep at it, that’s about 18 months away.
Yet effectively, it will be no more than that: a completion. It won’t make me better, smarter, more clever. It might not even make me fluent. It will merely mean this time, I didn’t turn around. Every now and then, you need to embrace the folly of your own Everest.
I hope every time my friend’s husband looks down at his feet he thinks, “I stood on the south summit of Everest. And it was awesome.”
What’s your Everest?
If you want to learn French:
Most US cities have an Alliance Francaise (as do many non-US cities, including Paris). If you are a Francophile, sign up for a class. My experience in Denver was great.
In Paris, I can only talk to three programs:
WICE: An English-speaking community in Paris, WICE offers language courses along with lots of other classes (writing, art, drawing, wine tasting, etc) along with day trips and walking tours. In addition, there are weekly conversation sessions in French and English that members can join for free. Even if you are coming to Paris for a short visit, you might want to check out WICE. (There is an annual fee to join). I love my French class, but it meets twice a week, and you have to sign up for a minimum of 1-month increments. Enrollment is every three months, and the classes fill almost immediately. WICE is located in the 15th.
Lutece Langue: I started at Lutece in December. My teacher was fantastic, but I wasn’t looking for a daily class and decided long term, I’d prefer the schedule of WICE. This could be a great option for anyone who wants to spend a week in Paris immersed in learning French. The school is (more or less) behind the Musee D’Orsay in the 7th (very near the border with the 6th).
Language Appart’: My neighbor, Mark, took an intensive class here, and then settled into a regular private session. The school has a great reputation and Mark has loved it. It’s in the 11th, just a few blocks from where I live.
Categories: Life in Paris