Montpellier, France — Est-cequetuasdejamange?m . . . the words rattle over my head as the young woman at the welcome desk points in the direction of the restaurant. Realizing that I've never been addressed before by the familiar ''tu,'' I shake my head and set off for lunch.
My month-long intensive-French course at the Centre Universitaire de Vacances , Universite Paul Valery, Montpellier, has begun.
The first week begins with a test to establish our levels. As I do the dictee , I notice an older man sitting next to me. I meet him walking out of the amphitheater into the Midi sun.
Jeremiah is a tall, spare Irishman whose face seems to have been pared to its bony outline. Below thin wisps of hair, a serene and rather distant smile plays on his lips. That afternoon, when provisional lists for our levels are posted, Jeremiah is placed in the top group, while I am placed firmly at the bottom.
By the second day, the beginner's class has shrunk to 12. Soon we are all feeling relaxed. In our conversation class with Madame Gratton we are going to be allowed to say the most ridiculous things.
At 10:15 precisely, our professor of grammar sweeps into the room and begins on the personal pronoun. ''Allez-y.''m She points at the Austrian novelist sitting beside me.
And then to me. She is merely saying ''Go ahead.'' I do, and make a mistake. Her approach is devastating, but impartial and ultimately very kind.
After three days we put her in the exhausting-but-wonderful category. Jeremiah attends her optional afternoon atelier and tells me that it is ''indispensable.''
Jeremiah lives alone in a block of flats for old people in London. I ask him if it is difficult.
''Oh no. I read a lot . . . Victor Hugo, the classics.'' And why of all the places in France offering intensive courses had he come to Montpellier?
''I thought of the sun over the Mediterranean.''
The third lesson of the morning is a civilization class, for which we have two teachers. One, the course director, Monsieur Foubert, is a sophisticated man who discusses with us contemporary political and social issues against their historical background. Whenever we miss a word, he finds a simpler expression for it.
The other teacher, Madame Gallet, is a vivacious art historian who familiarizes us with the vocabulary of French architecture, using slides.
I have now settled into my small room in the student annex, and am enjoying three meals a day at the student restaurant. For a treat, a group of us slip into town to sample more exotic provincial dishes. By the second week we are trying to talk to each other in French out of class.
On Sunday we go on an excursion to St.-Guilhem-le-Desert, a superlative Romanesque abbey church. Only a small part of the cloister remains. The rest is in the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
On Friday Yoko, a Japanese professor of the tea ceremony, explains the finer points of Zen.
''I am as the tree,'' she gestures toward the Mediterranean parasol pine outside. A discussion ensues about the place of personality in nature, in which Marco, an Italian sociology student, and Maria, a Spanish lawyer, take part.
Meanwhile, my Austrian neighbor scribbles down new words with the help of her German dictionary. We sense one world refracted through different windows.
By the third week we take the Sunday excursion into the Garriques Mountains and have lunch by the Herault River, which we eat sitting beneath a perfectly arched stone bridge.
A few minutes later I see Jeremiah dive into the river and swim under the bridge and out of sight. He does not return. The course monitors, Philippe and Jean-Pierre look anxious. I notice Jeremiah's modest rucksack lying on a rock not far from where I'm sitting.
Philippe and Jean-Pierre, who are acting as lifeguards, seem to be about to organize a search when a head comes into view under the bridge. With easy, even strokes Jeremiah swims in front of us before disappearing in the other direction.
The next morning I meet Jeremiah on the way to class. He explains that he swims every day in London.
Later that day Ella, an American social worker from North Carolina, reads a paper on the way television reinforces roles for women. The conversation turns to French feminism.
We are still having some problems with French expressions. Marco suddenly explodes with a torrent of three-syllable English words, spoken with a broken French accent. From now on we are going to be able to communicate with each other on a different level.
During the fourth week I meet some of the American students who have come for a year of study. They have found apartments in the beautiful old city center and seem enthusiastic.
Reading the newspaper Le Monde every day, I discover a North African world previously hidden from me. At dinner the next night I talk with a Colombian priest about political theology and the role of Christianity in promoting social change in Latin America. Two weeks earlier we could not have talked to each other.
At the evening conversation atelier I meet Vladimir, an emigre Russian economist who works in New York.
He tells me that no Western European can ever understand the Russian people's capacity for suffering - that even Russian businessmen are driven by ideals, even though being in a leading position in any area of Soviet society involves humiliation and injustice.
He also translates for me some old sayings that have come down to him through his grandmother. I am startled at the spirituality latent in Soviet hearts, and decide to study Russian next.
Halfway through the fourth week, Philippe, the monitor who runs the evening conversation atelier, brings along his violin and plays tunes he has learned from an old man in his village. The son of a Languedoc villager, he falls into the musical accent of the Midi when speaking about these songs.
We are now learning the subjunctive. Just as we are beginning to falter, some Spanish students from Cordoba break into festive song. Their wild melodies force a rebirth of courage.
We are coming to love the Midi, with its rosemary and lavender night scents. The course is almost over. We are now fluent, and the time has come to offer our suggestions for how the course could be improved. Jeremiah has no criticisms.
''Everything's been really excellent,'' he says.
''I think I'll come back next year!''I see Jeremiah again that evening at Madame Gallet's lecture on the works of Delacroix and Courbet in the magnificent Musee Fabre in Montpellier. I remember that Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo about a discussion of electricite excessive he had with Gauguin when they visited the Museum together in 1888.
I enjoy these last days tremendously, wandering through the narrow streets of the old medieval town. I pay my respects to the 18th-century mansions of Montpellier's age d'or and to the exquisite Chateau d'Eau.
On the train going home to Holland, I meet two women from Morocco, and am surprised to find that my new vocabulary encompasses everything from daily life to post-independence politics. When they get off at Dijon, I pick up a French novel. Subjunctives leap up at me from the page.
My world has expanded a little. I decide to look into swimming in Utrecht.
Intensive French courses are held at the Universite Paul Valery each July, August and September. For information, write to: Centre Universitaire de Vacances, Universite Paul Valery, 34032 Montpellier CEDEX. France.