When in French NPR coverage of When in French: Love in a Second Language by Lauren Collins. News, author interviews, critics' picks and more.
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When in French

Love in a Second Language

by Lauren Collins

Hardcover, 243 pages, Penguin Group USA, List Price: $27 |


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When in French
Love in a Second Language
Lauren Collins

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NPR Summary

Describing how, after moving to Geneva, the author decided to learn French in order to become closer to her husband and his family, a laugh-out-loud effort marked by the complexities of the language, the nature of French identity and her growing appreciation for French-specific communication nuances.

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Excerpt: When In French


The Past Perfect

Le Plus-que-parfait

I hadn't wanted to live in Geneva. In fact, I had decisively wished not to, but there I was. Plastic ficuses flanked the entryway of the building. The corrugated brown carpet matched the matte brown fretwork of the elevator cage. The ground floor hosted the offices of a psychiatrist and those of an ­iridologue—a practitioner of a branch of alternative medicine that was popularized when, in 1861, a Hungarian physician noticed similar streaks of color in the eyeballs of a broken-legged man and a broken-­legged owl. Our apartment was one story up.

The bell rang. Newlywed and nearly speechless, I cracked open the door, a slab of oak with a beveled brass knob. Next to it, the landlord had installed a nameplate, giving the place the look less of a home than of a bilingual tax firm.

A man stood on the landing. He was dressed in black— T-shirt, pants, tool belt. A length of cord coiled around his left shoulder. In his right hand, he held a brush. Creosote darkened his face and arms, extending his sleeves to his fingernails and the underside of his palms. A red bandanna was tied around his neck. He actually wore a top hat. I hesitated before pushing the door open further, unsure whether I was up against a chimney sweep or some sort of Swiss strip-o-gram.

"Bonjour," I said, exhausting approximately half of my French vocabulary.

The man, remaining clothed, returned my greeting and began to explain why he was there. His words, though I couldn't understand them, jogged secondhand snatches of dialogue: per cantonal law, as the landlord had explained to my husband, who had transmitted the command to me, we had to have our fireplace cleaned once a year.

I led the chimney sweep to the living room. It was dominated by the fireplace, an antique thing in dark striated marble, with pot hooks and a pair of side ducts whose covers hinged open like lockets. Shifting his weight onto one leg with surprising grace, the chimney sweep leaned forward and stuck his head under the mantel. He poked around for a few minutes, letting out the occasional wheeze. Coming out of the arabesque, he turned to me and began, again, to speak.

On a musical level, whatever he was saying sounded ­cheerful, a scale-skittering ditty of les and las. Perhaps he was ­admiring the condition of the damper, or welcoming me to the neighborhood. He reached into his pocket, proffering a matchbook and a disc of cork. Then he disappeared.

Minutes went by as I examined his gifts. They seemed like props for a magic trick. More minutes passed. I launched into a version of rock, scissors, paper: since the cork couldn't conceivably do anything to the matches, then the matches must be meant to light the cork. Action was required, but I feared potentially incinerating the chimney sweep, who, I guessed, was making some sort of inspection up on the roof.

Eventually he returned, chirping out some more instructions. I performed a repertoire of reassuring eyebrow raises and comprehending head nods. He scampered away. I still had no idea, so I lit a match, held it to the cork, and tossed it behind the grate. The pile started smoking and hissing. After a few seconds, I lost my nerve and snuffed it out.

The chimney sweep resurfaced, less jolly. He had appointed an assistant who, it appeared, was actively thwarting his routine. This time he spoke in the supple, obvious tones one reserves for madwomen, especially those in possession of flammable objects. Reclaiming the half-charred piece of cork, he lit a fire and, potbelly jiggling, sprinted back out the door.

Finally, he returned and reported—I assume, since we used the fireplace without incident all that winter—that ­everything was in order.

"Au revoir!" I said, trying to regain his confidence, and my standing as chatelaine of this strange, drab domain. "Hello" and "good-bye" were a pair of bookends, propping up a vast library of blank volumes, void almanacs, novels full of sentiment I couldn't apprehend. It felt as though the instruction manual to living in Switzerland had been written in invisible ink.

I had moved to Geneva a month earlier to be with my husband, Olivier, who had moved there because his job required him to. My restaurant French was just passable. Drugstore French was a stretch. IKEA French was pretty much out of the question, meaning that, since Olivier, a native speaker, worked twice as many hours a week as Swiss stores were open, we went for months without things like lamps.

He had already been living in Geneva for a year and a half. Meanwhile, I had remained in London, where we'd met. The commute was tolerable, then tiring. In the spring of 2013, as our wedding approached, it was becoming a drag. Finally, that June, a visa fiasco abruptly forced me to leave England. Memoirs of immigration, like memories of immigration, often begin with a sense of approach—the ship sailing into the harbor, the blurred countryside through the windows of a train. My arrival in Geneva, on British Airways, was a perfect anticlimax, the modern ache of displacement anesthetized amid blank corridors of orange liqueur and fountain pens.

When Lord Byron arrived in Switzerland for an extended holiday in May 1816—fleeing creditors, gossips, and his wife, from whom he had recently separated, after likely fathering a child with his half sister—his entourage included a valet, a footman, a personal physician, a monkey, and a peacock. That summer he wrote The Prisoner of Chillon, the tale of a ­sixteenth-century Genevan monk, most of whose family has been killed in battle or burned at the stake. "There were no stars, no earth, no time / No check, no change, no good, no crime," the poem reads. As a description of the local atmosphere, that seemed to me about right. Geneva was unlovely, but not hideous, as though no one had cared enough to do ugly with conviction. The city seemed suffused by complacency, as gray and costive as the clouds that hovered over Lac Léman.

The main attraction was a clock made of begonias. Transportation was by tram. At the Office Cantonal de la ­Population, I was given a "Practical Guide to Living in Geneva," ­ostensibly a welcome booklet. "It is forbidden and not well looked upon to make too much noise in your apartment between 21:00 and 07:00," it read. "Also avoid talking too loudly, and shouting to call someone in public places." The booklet directed me to a web page, which listed further gradations of bruit admissible (acceptable noise) and bruit excessif (excessive noise). Vacuuming during the day was okay, but God help the voluptuary who ran the washing machine after work.

Geneva had long been a place of asylum, but its tradition of liberty in the religious and political realms had never given rise to a libertine scene. Even though nearly half of the pop­ulation was foreign-born, the city remained resolutely uncosmopolitan, a tepid fondue of tearooms, confectionaries, and storefronts selling things like hosiery and lutes. Every block had its coiffeur, just as every coiffeur had its lone patroness, getting her hair washed in the sink. It wasn't as though Genevans enjoyed the advantages of living in the countryside. Many of them, native and nouveau, had means. So why hadn't some son or daughter of the city, after traveling to New York or Paris or Beirut—to Dallas or Manchester—been inspired to open a place where the bread didn't come in a doily-lined wicker ­basket? Was there a dinkier phrase, in any language, than métropole lémanique?

After a month or so of heavy tramming, we decided to buy a car. We purchased insurance, which included coverage for theft, fire, natural disasters, and dommages causés par les ­fouines—damages caused by a type of local weasel. I traded in my American driver's license for a Swiss one. The process took seventeen minutes flat. One sodden afternoon not long after, we trammed over to the Citroën lot.

Alexandre, a customer service representative, greeted us. He smelled of cigarettes and was wearing a tie.

"So, voici," he said. (Switzerland has four official languages—German, French, Italian, and Romansh—and people tended to switch back and forth without warning, with varying degrees of success.) He led us to the car, a gray hatchback parked outside the office on a covered ramp.

It was pouring, each drop of rain a suicide jumper, hurling itself onto the ramp's tin roof. We circled around the car, hoping to project a discerning vibe, as though any painted-over weasel damage would never get by us.

Olivier stopped on the car's left side and, because it seemed like the thing to do, opened the backseat door.

"You will soon have des petits enfants?" Alexandre said.

"Um, we just got married."

"Ah, bon? It was a Protestant or a Catholic ceremony?"

Our city hall wedding was an unimaginability for Alexandre. I was beginning to understand, only very slowly, that the city's conservatism was neither an accident of demographics nor an oversight but an enactment of its founding values by conscious design. In 1387, more than a hundred years before the Catholic Church began to loosen its prohibitions on usury, the bishop of Geneva signed a charter of liberties, granting the genevois, alone in Christendom, the privilege of lending money at interest. The elite became financiers. The aspirant became Swiss mercenaries. Famed for their ferocity with the halberd and the pike, they poured cash into the economy in an era when most of the world's population was getting paid in eggs.

The mentality had persisted: do your hell-raising—your eating in restaurants without doilies—abroad, and retreat to a place of imperturbable security. Voltaire wrote of Geneva, "There, one calculates, and never laughs." Stendhal, passing through seventy years later, concluded that the genevois, despite their wealth and worldly networks, were at heart a parochial people: "Their sweetest pleasure, when they are young, is to dream that one day they will be rich. Even when they indulge in some imprudence and give themselves to pleasure, the ones they choose are rustic and cheap: a walk, to the summit of some mountain where they drink milk." Monotony, then, was an economy. So that we could collectively accrue more capital, a curfew had been set.

Weekends were the worst. All of the shops closed at seven—except on Thursdays, when some of them closed at seven thirty—rendering Saturdays a dull frenzy of provisioning. Sundays were desolate, a relic of the Calvinist lockdown mentality that had sent the young Rousseau scrambling to Savoy. A relocation consultant furnished by Olivier's company said that there had been talk of easing the Sunday moratorium, but to no avail. "Approximately ninety-nine percent of Swiss people support it," he said, sounding to us approximately one hundred percent like a Swiss person.

Geneva had its graces—the trams operated on an honor system; even the graffiti artists were mannerly, defacing the sides of statues that didn't face the street—but I took them as further proof that the city was second-rate. You could, of course, escape to any number of attractive places within driving range, and we passed many afternoons wandering the relatively bustling streets of Lyon. It seemed sad, though, that the main selling point of the place where we lived was its proximity to places where we'd rather live. And while the mountains that surrounded us were magnificent, the twenty-five or so times a year that we managed to take advantage of them didn't make up for the three hundred and forty times we didn't. On Sunday nights, after an outing, we'd return to our stockpiled supper and take out the recycling, casting bottles and cans into the maw of a public bin. This was our version of indulging in an imprudence: you could get fined for recycling—for recycling, I had not missed a negative adverb—on the day of rest.

Behind its orderly facade—the apartment buildings with their sauerkraut paint jobs; the matrons in furs; the brutalist plazas; the allées of pollarded trees—Geneva was, if anything, faintly sinister. Its vaunted sense of discretion seemed a cover for dodginess, bourgeois respectability masking a sleazy milieu. What was going on in those clinics and cabinets? Whose money, obtained by what means, was stashed in the private banks? What was a "family office," anyway?

One day I received an e-mail from the Intercontinental Hotel Genève, entitled "What You Didn't Know about Geneva." I did not know that the Intercontinental Hotel Genève "continues to cater to the likes of the Saudi Royal family and the ruling family of the United Arab Emirates," that the most expensive bottle of wine sold at auction was sold in Geneva (1947 Château Cheval Blanc, $304,375), that the most expensive diamond in the world was sold in Geneva (the Pink Star, a 59.6-carat oval-cut pink diamond, $83 million), or that Geneva "has witnessed numerous world records, such as the world's longest candy cane, measuring 51 feet long." I developed a theory I thought of as the Édouard Stern principle, after the French investment banker who was found dead in a penthouse apartment in Geneva—shot four times, wearing a flesh-colored latex catsuit, trussed. Read any truly tawdry news story, and Geneva will somehow play into it by the fifth paragraph. Balzac wrote that behind every great fortune lies a crime. In Switzerland, behind every crime seemed to lie a great fortune.

Around us Europe was reeling, but the stability of the Swiss franc, combined with the influx of people who sought to exploit it, made the city profoundly expensive. The stores were full of things we neither wanted nor could afford. I reacted by refusing to buy or do anything that I thought cost too much money, which was pretty much everything, and then complaining about my boredom. Geneva syndrome: becoming as tedious as your captor. The expanses of my calendar stretched as pristine as those of the Alps.

Olivier didn't love Geneva either, but he didn't experience it as an effacement. He said that it reminded him of a provincial French town in the 1980s—a setting and an epoch with which he was well acquainted, having grown up an hour outside Bordeaux during the Mitterrand years. His consolations were familiarities: reciting the call-and-response of francophone pleasantries with the women at the dry cleaners; reading Le Canard enchaîné, the French satirical newspaper, when it came out each Wednesday; watching the TV shows—many of them seemed to involve puppets—that he knew from home. He was living in a sitcom, with a laugh track and wacky neighbors. I was stranded in a silent film.