The Language Du Jour

WHEN I married a Frenchman and moved to France, I slowly slipped into a French-speaking pattern - thinking, dreaming, and raising children in French. Only when the children grew up and left home did I have the time and space to venture back to an English-speaking pattern. It took a while to adjust and make the edges fit; then one day I found myself American once again. Pierre, my husband, appreciates the variable metamorphosis. And I have the choice: Will I live the coming day in French or in English?

If I decide for French, I'll greet my husband with ``Bonjour, mon cheri, as-tu bien dormi?'' There will follow an intimate exchange about whether we slept soundly, if we were too hot or too cold, how many times we woke, and so forth. Our breakfast will be short and precise - coffee, bread, and butter. We'll question each other about our days, sounding rational, discussing one subject after another, in a manner not unlike a dissertation.

And my day will continue as such. In my head I'll make lists of things to do and go about my morning, proceeding methodically, not losing time. I'll avoid odds and ends of conversation with people I meet, especially with people I don't know. At the same time I'll be unfailingly polite, ``Bonjour, Madame,'' ``Au revoir, Monsieur,'' ``Vous ^etes tres aimable, Madame,'' ``Je vous remercie, Monsieur,'' be it with my neighbor, the mail carrier, or the butcher.

Back home, in the afternoon, when working at my desk, I may loosen up and temporarily slide out of this French-speaking pattern. But if the telephone rings, I'll sit up straight, pick up the receiver and reply, ``Allo?'' without the slightest encouragement to the caller.

In the evening, I will relate my day to Pierre and ask about his. During dinner we will talk seriously about the news, politics, a concert or movie, a book, about our children, our friends, the company we'd like to entertain. If we are planning a large dinner party, he will suggest that I send invitations rather than phone. ``It's less familiar,'' he'll say. And I will explain that I prefer to call, insisting that it's more personal, even if I sometimes mix up the ``tu'' and ``vous.''

Still today, we have close friends whom we address with the formal ``vous,'' as we also address Pierre's parents. Regardless of the relationship, mail carrier, butcher, close friend, and favorite uncle, all get the same ``vous.''

Now, however, if I decide to live my day in English, I will greet my French husband with something like, ``Good morning, dear, time to get up,'' pulling off the covers to make sure he's heard me. I'll dress in a purple track suit and go fix orange juice to awaken our appetites for eggs and bacon. I'll take my time, talking to Pierre about whatever comes into my mind. He'll try to get up from the table once or twice, but I'll ask him not to rush off, reminding him how I used to enjoy long breakfasts years ago in the States.

And when he's gone, I'll stay right there and reread yesterday's newspaper in English, making myself a second or third cup of coffee. Before doing my work, I'll perhaps call and invite a friend for lunch. When I go shopping, I'll bump into somebody I haven't seen for weeks and stop and chat. By the time I get to the post office, there'll be lots of people waiting in line. I'll smile at whoever looks at me, and then I'll smile and talk with the clerk who's been there for several years. Finally I'll skip the shopping and serve whatever I have in the fridge. My friend won't mind, she's used to my improvised meals.

In the afternoon I'll work at my desk. When the phone rings, I'll lean back in my chair - or take the phone and lie down on my bed - and answer, ``Hello, this is Susan.'' If the weather's good, I'll go for a short walk, down the road opposite our house, near the empty fields that remind me of New England. I'll say hello to the people I meet, they'll look startled and most likely won't answer.

In the evening, I'll tell Pierre about the old acquaintance I met at the shopping center, the clerk in the post office, my friend who came for lunch, the people who telephoned, and the dog that wagged its tail at me while its owner looked away. I'll laugh and make him laugh. He'll tell me about his day, the people he met, and we'll ramble on. Then I'll start telephoning our guests for Saturday evening and I won't give a hoot about ``tu'' and ``vous.''

Bilingualism or split personality? Once the two patterns fit, I choose the best of each. I sleep soundly and wake up full of energy. I read the papers in both languages, comparing different points of view. I laugh at myself even when I'm serious. I talk with everyone I meet, but keep time to be still. The ``tu'' and ``vous'' come naturally, and when they don't, I explain why. No longer prisoner of either language, I ultimately feel at home in both.

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