Ma Belle France From North to South
French-speaking Global Population
If you are anything like I am, visiting France is an experience you aren’t likely to forget.
According to the World Atlas, French is the official language in some 29 countries around the world. It is one of the procedural languages for the European Union (EU) and one of the recognized working languages of the United Nations (UN). When we include French native speakers, L2 speakers, partial speakers, as well as speakers of various French dialects and creoles, the world is home to arguably as many as 300 million French speakers. Nearly half of the global French-speaking population lives in Sub-Saharan Africa, Northern Africa, and the Middle East. With a rapidly growing African population, the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF) estimates that by 2050, there may be as many as 700 million French speakers, 80 percent of whom will reside in Africa.
My Canadian Roots
I was born in Canada. I grew up in a steel city in southern Ontario not too far from Toronto. When I was a little girl of 9 years old, I was introduced to the wonderful world of French, and I was immediately obsessed. I excelled in all of my French lessons and would speak French with anyone who’d engage me. After my fourth year of high school, I was accepted into a federal government program that allowed me to spend the summer in Quebec. I was placed in the highest level, and spent two full months fully immersed in the French Canadian language and culture. I’ll write a future post about my unforgettable experiences Quebec. If you’ve never been, throw some clothes in a duffel bag, hop in the car, train, or plane, and head to Quebec! It’s simply amazing.
By the time I was in grade 13 (let me translate — I’m speaking “Canadian” now. Grade 13 no longer exists but it was offered as a 5th year of high school for all those keeners like me who wished to continue their academics into university), I was not only conversing with my French teachers in the French language, but I was hired by Alliance Française to work their evening telephone lines. By the following September, I headed off to the University of Ottawa and spent some time at the Université de Laval in Quebec to eventually earn my degree in French Language and Literature. Yep. I was hooked, and still am to this day.
You know, I didn’t even have a single immediate family member with whom to engage in the French language except for one lovely aunt who was (and is) also a Francophile. Everything I learned, I learned on my own, with nothing more than a burning desire to speak the language I had quite literally fallen in love with. After I earned my degree, every single job I have ever held has involved the French language in one degree or another.
My French Translation Days
In my early days following graduation, I worked at a local paint and wallpaper store. I was responsible for answering all the calls that came in from the store’s French clientele who resided in Northern Ontario and Quebec. I then went on to work as a translator for an insurance company. I was primarily responsible for translating medical documentation, as well as legal and general correspondence from French to English. And I’ll let you in on a little secret — this was well before the days of CAT tools and translation memories.
Yep. I used good old-fashioned generic, medical, and legal dictionaries in both languages. And I loved it. Every single second of it, even when it involved (which it almost always did) having to dissect and identify each and every letter in each and every word a doctor had illegibly scribbled into her notes before I could even begin the translation process. I loved it. I loved French. I loved the sound of it. I loved the French Canadian culture. I loved learning about the French culture and its history in general. And I still do. No, I’m not a Francophone, but I am most certainly a Francophile for life.
Traveling to France
I had eventually left the insurance world and returned to graduate school to earn a Masters degree in Education. Within weeks of graduation, I was scooped up by an elementary school, offering me a French Immersion teaching position. I would then spend the next eight years, teaching French Immersion in Canada before relocating to the United States. In the US, I was immediately hired to teach the French language and culture, and spent the next few years, teaching at the elementary, middle, and high school years.
It was during these years that I was invited to act as a chaperone, and accompanied my high school French students to France. And it was in France that something very powerful and quite unexpected happened to me — but more on this later. In fact, I suspect I have to tell my story in a somewhat backwards fashion so as to end on my most extraordinary moment. Yep, I’ll start at the end.
Oh yes, Paris. It certainly didn’t disappoint. One of my fondest memories was our visit to the Sacré Cœur. After our tour, we rested for a quick bite to eat on the stone stairs and the grassy hills at the basillica’s entrance. It was here that I had to at least attempt to start a conversation with one of the statues vivantes. I just couldn’t help myself.
Our time in Paris was extraordinary. We visited the Salvidor Dalí museum, took a cruise on the Seine, paid our respects to Notre Dame, and climbed the Eiffel Tower. I suspect this is typical for most tourists, but it was beyond special for me. In fact, there was one particular moment that literally stopped me in my tracks. But more on this later on.
Le Sud de la France
Our final destination was a visit to Montpellier, a beautiful historic city which sits near the south coast of France, on the Mediterranean Sea. We also spent quite a bit of time in the wonderful port of Sète. We visited the Sète marketplaces. We hiked Mont St-Clair, we picnicked and played soccer on the Mediterranean, and we experienced the breathtaking Grotte de Clamouse.
On one particularly surreal evening, we dined in a 16th century castle. Among the guests, were an elderly Québecois priest in full garb, an English rock star with his mother, stern-faced French politicians huddled together discussing politics, a group of French instructors, and I, one very overwhelmed and very hypnotized Francophile Canadian. I’ll admit, I felt a little intimidated but it didn’t stop me from trying to my heart’s content to converse with everyone.
I sat with the Quebecois priest who was as lovely as lovely can be. I tried to speak politics with the men huddled in the corner but that didn’t bode too well. They were much too involved in the politics of the day to entertain this starry-eyed Canadian. I talked at length with the rock star and was completely charmed by him and his mother’s British accents and humorous stories. But I truly spent the majority of the evening with our lovely Monpellier hosts who couldn’t have been more supporting and inviting. And the castle! Oh my goodness, the castle! I have never in my life seen a dining table as long as the one with which were were presented. I have never even come close to stepping foot in a stone building as extraordinarily antique as this. I have never spent a more enchanted evening — and I suspect I never will again.
Back in Montpellier, my colleague and I stayed with a couple who welcomed us into their home as one would welcome their own family. Each evening, we’d enjoy the most delectable meals. We would sit around the table for hours laughing and losing ourselves in engaging conversation. We would then retire to the den where we would listen to music and sing our most beloved songs, and it was at this moment that I found a delightful Canadian connection.
Our male host, whose name sadly escapes me, was a huge fan of Leonard Cohen, the one-and-only Leonard Cohen, a Canadian singer, songwriter, and poet. And it just so happens, this here Canadian is also a huge fan. We would sing his songs every night while our host played guitar, and it was quite literally magical. I was living in a dream. On our final night, I presented him with a gift — a double compact disc of Leonard’s greatest hits. The world has since lost our beloved Leonard Cohen, but those evenings, in the den of our friends’ home in Monpellier, these aren’t memories that are likely to ever fade away, I pray.
Back to Paris
So, why do I want to end my story at the beginning? Because it was in Paris that something quite extraordinary happened to me — and I didn’t see it coming until it landed squarely in the center of my being.
Ok, so, to know me is to know that I am a mother at heart. I take that responsibility very seriously as all mothers do. Naturally, I extended that responsibility to my students, who to me, were my children when they were in my care. So, having taken on the enormous responsibility of caring for other families’ children on foreign soil was not one I engaged in lightly.
On the morning we were to visit the Champs-Élysées and the Louvre, I was feverishly counting heads, gathering up my chickens, quite typical of any other morning. After ensuring everyone was accounted for, and after lining up my little darlings, partnering them with a buddy, and giving them safety instructions for the day like the dutiful mother that am, we were off. We walked briskly through the streets to make good timing. Yes, I was that sort of teacher who was also very respectful of schedules and made sure we were on time — or ahead of time — to each and every event. In the hustle and bustle, I must have not really been focused on “where” I was, but more focused on my students’ safety and the need to keep on schedule.
l’Arc de Triomphe
So we hustled and we bustled on. We hurried our way through the streets as I continued to gather my chickens as close to me as I possibly could — and then, all of a sudden, it happened. We were there. We were standing in front of the Arc de Triomphe, and it was as if everything else faded away. It was as if time had stopped in its tracks and it was just the Arc and I. I was so busily counting heads and ensuring everyone’s safety that I didn’t see it coming. I could feel tears forming in my eyes and suddenly I was weeping.
You see, I grew up in a single-family home. We had next-to-no money and I grew up with very limited expectations with regard to what I’d be able to accomplish in life. It was those early years of my upbringing that made a lasting impression upon me, that formed my thoughts and perceptions so to speak. All my life, I felt in my heart that I was just a poor, little girl from a steel city, and although I talked the big talk to my students about France, about Paris, and about its history, and although I spoke as though I was some sort of expert, I always felt in my heart of hearts that I was an impostor of sorts.
In my mind’s eye, I was always going to be that poor little girl who dreamed of France but who could never actually afford to visit. And somewhere inside of me, I felt somewhat like a phony, offering these engaging, lively lessons to my students to try to instill in them, the passion and love I had for this language and its culture, even though I had never, ever stepped foot on France’s soil, and likely never would. But then suddenly here I was, standing in front of the Arc de Triomphe.
I had made it. I was no longer a phony. I was no longer that little Canadian girl who only dreamed of her France. I was standing on Her soil. It is quite impossible for me to describe how humbling this was, and how honored I felt to have been a part of something so ground-shaking — at least that’s how it felt for me.
Like all dreams do, this one too soon came to an end, and I was on my way home, back to counting all my little chickens’ heads en route, all the way back to the States. My time in France had come to an end.