How a world expands during just one month in 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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.