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Saturday, March 26, 2011

January, en francais

“But Paris was a very old city and we were very young and nothing was simple there, not even poverty, nor sudden money, nor the moonlight, nor right and wrong nor the breathing of someone who lay beside you in the moonlight.” -Ernest Hemingway

Sit down in the subway, look down around you, and you will witness the most incredible sight— a fanfare of boots. Winter in New York is brutal and charming. Few things match the beauty of a fresh, quiet blanket of white snow in New York, people marching the middle of powdery streets like the aftermath of some eerie New Year’s party or the cover of Bob Dylan’s Freewheelin’.

But, within a day, it turns ugly. The once sparkly city hunches over with endless grime, muck, and bitterness. The only signs of hope and resilience— owners waving good morning to one another shoveling and snowblowing their storefronts, strangers giving a helping hand over the ice, and a man helping a woman carry her baby stroller up an icy set of stairs in Bed‑Sty. Snow banks stand defeated the color of soot.

But the most lurid of all are the dirty pools swirling and slushing every street corner, each one a sickly color of exhaust, nuclear runoff, brine, and indignity. The great thing is that New York is a walking city, and, to shield themselves, people dawn the most impressive collection of boots. Some are heeled, others flat. Some are buckled, others clean. Some are paisley and blue, others solid black. Some are big, furry, and subdued, others sleek and stoic. Some are knit, sheepskin, others leather. Some are ankle-high, others higher. Some are for construction, others for grace. Whatever it is, at every stop, they shuffled in and out in squeaky ceremony. I closed my eyes and thought of Ravindra Misal, who didn’t have a pair of shoes until the ninth grade. 

This is what I noticed on my way to an intensive French class in January in Bed-Sty with Fanny, who had grown up in Le Mans, France, moved to Arkansas and then to New York. Part of it was to fill a void in my resume. Maybe because the world touts over thirty francophone countries. Maybe it was a desire to escape the bubble of school. It’s humbling being with the most centered, brilliant, poised, spirited, dedicated, ambitious, and helpful group of people every day. The world is in good hands. But, I still found an institution and architecture that defined success as whatever echoed off of the walls, walls hollowed of authenticity. As if “liquidity” was still a believable catch‑all rationale. Days became a pageant of hoops to jump through. Absent was the intoxicating feeling of a Bobby Kennedy speech, Dr. King’s march on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, or the great explorers. I saw an institution that was as often impeccable as it missed the point, the most important skill for employability through your life, whether you are an equity analyst, rheumatologist, senator, chef, serial entrepreneur, astrophysicist, or teacher— storytelling. It’s why the most valuable course that Steve Jobs ever took was calligraphy.

Maybe it was the comfort of home as I had taken French in middle school, high school, and college, but my skills had since atrophied. I thought back to seventh grade and our teacher Madame Thursland and later the high school hijinks of ordering ‘escargot chocolat’ during café simulations. Or, my college professor, Madame Harder, whose French writing and culture class lived up to her name. Maybe I wanted to understand Hemingway’s Paris and the men fishing along the Seine between Ile St. Louis and Place du Verte Galente. But, I believed it was more than all these things. There was something else that gnawed at and excited me about French and I needed to find out. As with every decision, it was a blend of impulse, deliberation, intimacy, vanity, and escape.

French can be both guttural and graceful. It’s a smooth velvet blanket, rumpled in many places. It’s not rhythmic like Spanish or Italian.  It rudely trails off and often doesn’t give it to you straight. It’s action-centric, a language of verbs. Unlike English, which offers a rich and growing vocabulary of over 250,000 words, French is lacking. But it’s not always a language of economy. For example, the expression etre en train de is added simply to convey a verb ending in –ing in English, to express something taking place right now. Most importantly, everything is about context and nuance. Adding an adjective can change the tense. The trail of an –s to the next word can change the meaning. Conduire means “to drive,” but se conduire means “behave” (to drive oneself). Personne can mean both “no one” or “person”. And, there are plenty of trappings and exceptions. But, it’s just too fun to speak.

All too often, I tip-toed through phrases as a hot iron wobbled on a board, eggshells scattered the floor. But, when it comes out right— caramel. Fanny and I spent all hours a day speaking French, about everything we could— Japan, the French Revolution, the State of the Union, the whites of eggs, bear, and episodes of The Office. She passed to me stories her grandmother passed to her of hiding Jews to safety during World War II. I’d bungle a sentence more often than not and Fanny would offer her corrections. We watched scenes from Inglourious Basterds and Amelie and journal televise on France 2. Lunches were simple, turkey baguette sandwiches, omelets, red cabbage, rice, bruschetta, cheese, and fresh strawberries, raspberries, or figs. Standing outside, our conversations would pour into a January wind that tightened around us and swim away.

Soon enough, I found that more satisfying than speaking in French was thinking in French. Pickles were crispy and delicious, but they became the “triumph” of a sandwich. The super of the apartment fixing the front door lock became a hero in a story “Le Patience”. Watching my mother roll a chapatti, I saw the French Revolution flatten out over time and space, its ideas, motivations, and sinews reaching out to all of the conflicts crackling around the world today from Puntland to Tahrir Square to Rangoon.

Thinking in French gives me a sense of proportion, a new habit of the mind. It turns out to be great at solidifying all those moments where infinity fit on a teaspoon— crashing Lego cars with your brother when you were seven, a carefree college party with the room spinning to Kanye, feeling the lines on the papery hands of your great grandmother, eating a boiled egg atop a hike in Uganda, a Buddy Rich vinyl playing in a jazz bar in Kyoto, a bonfire in Bungoma, Kenya, and sipping cheap fruit wine on a sizzling balcony in Mombasa. At its best, French is a running memory, a serene un‑calculation. At its worst, it’s a tape measure for my thoughts. It helps give shape to ideas. After all, it’s the shape of an idea that’s often more real than the idea itself.  

Flipping through the opening chapters of my corporate finance and global banking textbooks, I paused for minute to think back to two men sitting across from me on the subway. They were speaking in Russian. One, the father, was a spitting image of the other, but with an added thirty years of trial and judgment. It was something important because he was leaning in and holding his son’s elbow. His son nodded and smiled occasionally. They wore great big boots.