Wikipedia defines ‘Francophile’ “as a person who has a strong affinity towards the French language, French history, French culture or French people.” When I read that, I thought, “Wow, that is totally me.”
I grew up in Southern California, just an hour from the Mexican border. The most logical language to learn was Spanish. But from the first moment I heard French, I knew not only that I had to learn it, but that someday I wanted to go to France and live where they spoke that language.
Falling in Love with France
My journey as a Francophile began in earnest when, at age eleven, I heard the musical and luscious sounds of French roll off the tongue of my sister’s best friend. She had just begun studying French and giggled as she read phrases from her French I text. “Une chambre meublée,” and “Je t’aime.” I felt transfixed.
I grabbed the French I textbook to look at the pictures and words. A waiter with a white napkin over his arm served coffee to people sitting at small tables at a sidewalk café in Paris. The Eiffel Tower loomed over the vast city. The geometric perfection of the Rose window of Notre Dame Cathedral, old bridges over the Seine River – all the images seemed to jump off the page.
I held the book close and didn’t want to give it back. Why did these sounds and images pull me so? And when could I learn to speak this language that evoked something so powerful in me?
Two years later, when I began my French studies, French became my favorite subject, by far. I’d stay up late to learn each word, to understand the accents, to memorize the irregular verb endings, to tuck each new piece of the language deep into myself, into a private place that was just my own. French and France became my own personal obsession.
In my ‘inner French world,’ I felt free and alive. In that world, I had no history of arguments with my critical mother, no boyfriend troubles, no confusion about my future. In that place I was certain of one thing. I would go to France and speak those thrilling sounds and my life would change for the better. I would express this tingling energy that French evoked in me.
I became the top student in French in my high school. Excelling in French became how I defined myself, my sense of identity. For the next five years, French continued to be the center of my private world. When I couldn’t go abroad during high school summer programs, I became more riveted on doing my junior year abroad in college. I began saving for that time, tucking away money from summer jobs, part-time babysitting, theater ushering and typing jobs. From all that I earned, a little bit went into a savings account, just for that purpose.
Going to France
But “life is what happens to us while we’re making other plans,” (attributed to John Lennon and others.) I didn’t go to France for a year abroad as a twenty-year-old. I was married with a baby and my dreams of France had to go underground for many years.
The funny thing was, they kept popping up. I’d save up money to head to the international newsstand and purchase a coveted French Vogue. At night, while my daughter slept, I’d pore over the articles, translating words I didn’t recognize with my worn, thick French dictionary. I’d sneak off to a French movie at a foreign film venue, watching the subtitles, listening to the sounds, struggling to understand the dialogue. I lived in San Francisco and when I’d hear tourists speaking French. I’d dawdle, lean in and listen.
As the years passed, I took French classes, listened to tapes and joined conversation groups. My personal life took twists and turns. I returned to college to complete my degree, gave birth to my second daughter and then went through a divorce after eleven years of marriage before I finally set foot in France.
At the age of thirty-three, nineteen years after I began to study French, I landed in Paris. I’d worried that I might be disappointed by finally visiting the country I had coveted for so long. Instead, the private, French part of me breathed and laughed, sighed and spoke. I treasured this magical and mystical piece of myself even more because of all the time I had waited to experience her.
Eleven more years passed before, at age forty-four, I found my way to France for the second time. But during those years, I had continued to work to increase my strong foundation in the language. By then, both my daughters were out on their own and I began to visit France each year. My frequent visits could have satisfied my hunger for the country and the language. But instead, they increased the longing I had always carried, to live there.
Following a dream to live in Provence
So at the age of fifty, I carved out eight months, rented out my home, put all the bills online on my new laptop and set off. I wanted to step back from my life, take stock of the successes and the failures, look ahead at the time that was left, and do it all in France.
I also wanted to find out what would it be like to allow my nineteen-year-old self, who’d had to quash that long-ago dream, to surface and to find a voice. What would it feel like to allow myself to fulfill a dream that I had held onto for thirty years?
Follow along with me on that journey in my memoir, Eight Months in Provence, A Junior Year Abroad Thirty Years Late. I discovered that my “Junior Year Abroad” was not thirty years late. It was right on time.
Diane Covington-Carter is the author of Finding Gilbert, A Promise Fulfilled and Eight Months in Provence, A Junior Year Abroad Thirty Years Late, find out more at www.dianecovingtoncarter.com