“What made you decide to study French?” I get this question all the time.
And it’s a tough question to answer for several reasons.
I mean, you’ve perhaps heard the joke: “What do you call someone who speaks 3 languages? Trilingual. What do you call someone who speaks 2 languages? Bilingual. What do you call someone who speaks one language? American.” IMHO, the lack of foreign language skills among Americans is both an economic and a national security crisis.
Except, that’s not why I took French.
Nevertheless, I studied French from junior high through grad school. And I speak French with so little accent, most French people cannot tell I’m not French. For an American, that makes me a bit of an anomaly.
So inquiring minds would want to know: “What made you decide to study French?”
I rarely answer the question honestly, but here it is: French was a way out.
In sixth grade, a bunch of students taking French at Irving Junior High came to Sheridan Elementary to talk about France and to encourage us to take French.
They taught us how to count to 10 in French. They taught us the different sounds that animals make in French. (Did you know they make different sounds in France?) They put up posters of France: a man in a beret with a baguette in his shoulder sack riding a bike down a plane-tree-lined country road, the Tour Eiffel lit up at night, the Cathédral de Notre Dame, Paris, the City of Lights! I was in awe.
This description may sound quaint, but this 11-year-old girl, whose family life was drowning in the insanity of alcoholism, abuse, and mental illness, listened to those stories and heard that beautiful, new language and recognized for the first time that the world was a lot bigger than the one she was living in. It felt like a miracle had just happened for me.
Indeed, for me, the first time hope had a name, its’ name was Paris.
For the first time in my life, I thought, “It doesn’t have to be like this.” There was this whole other world out there, and French was my ticket there. I just had to learn it.
And by God, I did! I dropped all previous aspirations of becoming a veterinarian and pursued French with a passion and a love I don’t think I’d experienced before.
I spent my junior year of college in Paris, that city I had dreamed about for so long. I lived with a French family in the 14th Arrondissment on Rue d’Alésia. Within two months I was speaking French fluently with practically no accent.
I did it. I learned French. I lived in France. I kept studying. I became a French teacher.
I wish I could tell you it fixed everything I grew up with, but of course, it didn’t.
Yup, I did what we call a ‘geographic,’ the belief that changing locations will fix your problems. That was my first geographic, and a geographic that I put a ton of work into. And like anyone else’s geographic, it didn’t fix me.
After 14 years in Twelve-Step family recovery, I understand now that you take yourself with you.
Paris was a miracle in my life nevertheless.
You see, the promise Paris made that day in sixth grade was absolutely fulfilled. Paris proved beyond a doubt my conclusion that the world was a lot bigger than the one I’d been living in. She did it stunningly, fiercely and gracefully. She did it with awe and inspiration.
Plus, speaking French completely opened up that whole new world in ways that could not have happened without it. (Not to mention, Parisians are totally different if you speak French to them. You should try it sometime.)
And, of course, NOTHING in God’s world is wasted.
As fate would have it, I went to my first Twelve-Step family recovery meeting in Paris. Another woman in my study abroad group had had similar family experiences and took me to her meeting with her. It took me another twelve years to actively pursue the solution, but a seed was planted that year.
To be honest, though, the Twelve-Step meeting was the second seed that was planted. Paris actually planted the first: the realization that I was not completely trapped in my circumstances. The solution offered by Twelve-Step family recovery would never have been possible had I believed otherwise. And I’m pretty sure, without Paris, I would have.
I never cease to be amazed at how God manage to use even our mistakes in the service of our healing and recovery. In light of recent events, I’m feeling this miracle pretty intensely right now.
I could go also on endlessly about all the gifts learning French and living in France have given me: the people I’ve met, the places I’ve been, the amazing experiences, the profound appreciation of my own country.
But knowing that the world is way, way bigger than my small-thinking little brain would make it is by far the biggest. Seriously, it’s served me in immeasurable ways. God works in such mysterious ways, huh?
Paris is also one reason my career is transitioning from teaching into life and recovery coaching. Just like Paris did for me, I want to help people expand their world and their belief in the possibilities life holds.
So, like so many others, my heart has been breaking for Paris these past few days. And I feel so far away and powerless.
But I know God’s grace is watching over her. And I pray that the experiences of those whose lives she has profoundly changed helps her trust that the grace, awe, and inspiration with which she does that is much bigger than any terrorist group that would try to threaten her. I pray that as fiercely for her as she impressed those life-changing conclusions on me.
My heart is with her. It swells with gratitude for her, for France and for the French.
I truly mean it (and know what it means) when I say, Paris, je t’aime.
So, what about you? What were your ‘geographics’? Were there any hidden gifts in them? Let me know in the comments below. I read every one.
P.S. If you’re feeling trapped in life, I highly recommend learning a foreign language and going somewhere with it.