Hope Had a Name, Its Name Was Paris

“What made you decide to study French?”

I get this question a lot.

And it’s a tough question to answer, for several reasons.

I mean, you’ve perhaps heard the joke: “What do you call someone who speaks 3 languages? Trilingual. What do you call someone who speaks 2 languages? Bilingual. What do you call someone who speaks one language? American.”

The lack of foreign language skills among Americans is appalling. It’s both an economic and a national security crisis.

Except, that’s not why I took French.

Nevertheless, I studied French from junior high through grad school. And I speak French with so little accent, most French people cannot tell I’m not French.

For an American, that makes me a bit of an anomaly.

So inquiring minds want to know: “What made you decide to study French?”

I rarely answer the question honestly, but here it is: French was a way out.

In sixth grade, a bunch of students taking French at Irving Junior High came to Sheridan Elementary in Lincoln, Nebraska to talk about France and encourage us to take French.

They taught us how to count to 10 in French. They taught us the different sounds that animals make in French. (Did you know they make different sounds in France?)

They put up posters of France: a man in a beret with a baguette in his shoulder sack riding a bike down a plane-tree-lined country road, the Tour Eiffel lit up at night, the Cathédral de Notre Dame, Paris, the City of Lights!

I was in awe.

This description may sound quaint, but this 11-year-old girl whose family life was drowning in the insanity of alcoholism, abuse, and mental illness, listened to those stories and heard that beautiful, new language and recognized for the first time in her life that the world was a lot bigger than the one she was living in.

It felt like a miracle had just happened.

For me, the first time hope had a name, its name was Paris.

Suddenly, I thought, “It doesn’t have to be like this.” There was this whole other world out there, and French was my ticket. I just had to learn it.

And by God, I did!

I pursued French with a passion and a love I don’t think I’d experienced with anything else before.

I spent my junior year of college in Paris, that city I had dreamed about for so long. I lived with a French family in the 14th Arrondissment on Rue d’Alésia. Within two months I was speaking French fluently with practically no accent.

I did it. I learned French. I lived in France. I kept studying. I became a French teacher and taught for 20 years.

I wish I could tell you it fixed everything I grew up with, but of course, it didn’t.

In Twelve-Step circles, we call that a ‘geographic,’ the belief that changing locations will fix your problems. That was my first geographic, and one I put a ton of work into.

I’ve been in 12-Step family recovery for over 17 years, and I understand now that you take yourself with you.

But let me make one thing clear: the promise Paris made that day in sixth grade was absolutely fulfilled.

Paris proved beyond a doubt my conclusion that the world was a lot bigger than the one I’d been living in. She did it stunningly, fiercely and gracefully. She did it with awe and inspiration.

Plus, speaking French completely opened up that whole new world in ways that could not have happened without it. (Not to mention, Parisians are totally different if you speak French to them. You should try it sometime.)

And NOTHING in this world is wasted.

As fate would have it, I went to my first Twelve-Step family recovery meeting in Paris.

Another woman in my study abroad group had had similar family experiences and took me to her meeting with her. It took me another twelve years to actively pursue that solution, but a seed was planted that year.

To be honest, though, the Twelve-Step meeting was the second seed that was planted. Paris planted the first: the realization that I was not completely trapped in my circumstances. The solution offered by Twelve-Step family recovery would never have been possible had I believed otherwise. And I’m pretty sure, without Paris, I would have.

I could go on endlessly about all the gifts learning French and living in France have given me: the people I’ve met, the places I’ve been, the amazing experiences, the profound appreciation of my own country that I got by leaving it.

But knowing that the world is way, way bigger than my small-thinking brain would make it is by far the biggest. It’s priceless.

So, like so many others, my heart has been breaking for Paris. And I feel so far away and so powerless.

But I pray that the experiences of those whose lives she has profoundly changed helps her trust that the grace, awe, and inspiration with which she does that is much bigger than any tragedy that would befall her. I pray that as fiercely for her as she impressed those life-changing conclusions on me.

My heart is with her. It swells with gratitude for her, for France and for the French.

I truly mean it (and know what it means) when I say, Paris, je t’aime.

P.S. I will never forget the unbelievable organ playing at Notre Dame at midnight mass on Christmas Eve. It just blew me away from behind belting out the French version of “Angels We Have Heard on High” (“Les Anges Dans Nos Campagnes”) and “Il est né le divin enfant.” It’s still one of my most beautiful spiritual experiences.