I was excited to dive into New Yorker staff writer Lauren Collins’s new memoir When in French: Love in a Second Language, because I love French and I love love. Though, as existing Amazon reviews have accurately assessed, the book isn’t so much about a neatly tied together love story in France than about a love for French and language learning, facilitated by and amid a serious, multi-cultural, and multi-lingual relationship.
With that expectation in mind, the book will be a fun read for French/second-language learners and language enthusiasts. What it lacks in continuous, focused, satisfying story, the 250-page book makes up for in language-learning #realtalk and wonky delights. Here’s a taste:
…I was intrigued by the blend of rudeness and refinement [in French], the tension between the everyday and the exalted, that characterized the little I knew of the language. “Having your cake and eating it too” was Vouloir le beurre, l’argent, et le cul de la crémière [“To want the butter, the money, and the ass of the dairywoman.”]
Simultaneous interpretation requires almost superhuman neurological coordination. The task is so demanding that, at the United Nations, an interpreter typically works a shift of no more than twenty minutes.
In English, I strained to avoid such [familiar] formulations. But in French, conformity was my goal…I was trying to join in, not to distinguish myself. It was such a happy thing to strive for cliché.
In Russian, you can’t call the sky ‘blue.’ The language obliges its speakers to make a distinction between siniy (dark blue) and goluboy (light blue), so that what is in English one color becomes in Russian two.
I had once interpreted Olivier’s reticence as pessimism, but I now saw the deep romanticism, the hopefulness, of not wanting to overstate or to overpromise. Vous and tu concentrated intimacy by dividing it into distinct shades—the emotional equivalent of two shades of blue. I understood, finally, why it made Olivier happy when I wore makeup; why he didn’t call me his best friend; why I had never hard him burp. Love was not fusion. Je t’aime was enough.