This week I overheard a man speaking English with a decidedly French accent, so in a burst of boldness, I asked (in French) if he was French. “Oui…” he answered, clearly caught off guard by my keen detective skills. A lovely conversation ensued, completely in French. It turns out he and his family live in town. He was surprised to discover that there’s a vibrant French community in our area and eager to learn how he and his wife could get involved.
A little back story might be helpful. I spent most of my elementary school years living in Paris. I spoke French every day, played in French (and English too), watched tv in French, sang songs in French, and was soaked in the culture by eager parents who took us to museums, parcs, chateaux, etc. just about every weekend.
When I returned to the U.S. at age twelve, I was a bona fide Francophile. Through out high school and college, I worked hard to maintain fluency, taking every French language and literature class I could. I also listened to French music almost every night. (How many American girls in the 80’s do you think could sing along to the wonderful lyrics of Jacques Brel, the great Belgian singer? Not many, probably. But I did!)
This love for the French language and people continues. Indeed, the instant I suspect someone might be a native speaker, a switch goes off in my brain and suddenly I’m speaking and thinking in French. Interestingly, my French-speaking self isn’t as shy as my English-speaking self. She’s quite funny and very inquisitive and not afraid to just “wing it” conversation-wise. I’ve also discovered that quickly switching between my two language selfs is very difficult. So, if you happen to interact with me once my brain has switched to French, I will most answer you in French without realizing it, and even if you don’t speak it.
I’m like this when I write too. Once I’m engaged in a project, a switch goes off in my brain. I think, breathe, even speak the story, as my kids will attest. Here’s a typical scenario: We are sitting in the living room. My daughter is drawing, my son is reading (or fiddling with with some high-tech device) and I’m writing. Suddenly, my son interrupts, “Ahem, Mom, you’re doing it again.” Sure enough, I’m speaking aloud a poem-in-progress, or reciting some new dialogue. Worse yet, according my kids, sometimes I audibly wrestle with words and phrases while out walking the dog. It’s not just speaking my thoughts that embarrasses my children. Sometimes I tap my thoughts, drumming the beat of my rhyming works using spatulas (if I’m cooking) or fingers, or sticks, or whatever is convenient.
That’s transformative power of French and writing! Am I alone in this, or do you, too, have a creative switch in your brain that transports you into a magical writing mode?