Dad's French lesson

A large part of raising a child is teaching him or her how to make appropriate choices in life. I have been generally proud of the choices my son has made, but it wasn't until recently that I realized how much I sometimes benefit from them as well.

Alyosha is a robust, ever-busy teenager who is fully invested in his middle-school experience. This year, for the first time, he is studying French, a language of which I have no command, and a culture for which I feel no particular affinity.

As a result, I have stayed largely aloof from my son's foreign-language homework, happy that he seemed able to manage it on his own. One night, however, out of curiosity, I interrupted him to ask how his French was going. He put down his pencil and looked up at me. "Dad," he said, biting his lip, "I really want to go to Paris."

"Paris?" I echoed, in an attempt to buy some time to take his answer in. And then, "Are you kidding?"

In my own defense, I need to add that when this conversation occurred we were in deepest winter in Maine, with the wind howling about the eaves and snowdrifts all but barring entry to the front door. The very thought of leaving our warm and cozy home, much less flying out over the North Atlantic, was absolutely unappealing. But still, I felt a need to give his idea due consideration. "Paris," I said again, rolling the word around in my mouth like a hard candy. "Why Paris?"

To make a long story short, Alyosha's French teacher, or his French course, or perhaps a combination of both, had struck a responsive chord in him. "I really want to go," he begged. "There's something about it." Then, having planted the thought, he returned to his vocabulary list.

I spent the next several days ruminating on the subject. I had never been to Paris, but I had to admit I harbored some subtle biases about the French, especially the Parisians. I understood them to be, in a word, difficult, especially about Americans who couldn't stitch the simplest French phrase together. Well, that was me to a T, and the prospect of scurrying about and begging for directions in English on the Champs lyses was not a heartening one. I did have a little money set aside, but I had intended it for a computer that we could both use.

About a week later I approached my son at his homework once again. "Alyosha," I nudged. "About Paris...."

His head bobbed up and he smiled at me. "Yes, Dad?"

"Well, we do have a little money, but we have to make a choice. I wanted to get a computer, which will be even more important once you start high school next year. But we can't afford both a computer and a trip to Europe right now."

"Does that mean...?"

"You'll have to choose."

My son has a capacity for action that is exceeded only by my gift for procrastination. He looked dead at me and fired one word - "Paris."

I couldn't believe he had opted for travel over a computer. Over Space Invaders! NASCAR! Instant Messenger! But I suddenly felt there was no going back. Had I given him my word? I guess I had.

And so, late one January night, after Alyosha was fast asleep, I sat down at our outdated computer and did my homework, waiting for Web information to drip onto my screen like slow molasses. After three hours I had done it, for better or worse. I had bought two cheap tickets to Paris and booked an inexpensive hotel room in the Latin Quarter, wherever that was.

During the ensuing weeks Alyosha's anticipation grew, and he was the center of a great deal of attention in his French class. Even his teacher was wringing her hands with vicarious joy. My enthusiasm was growing as well, especially as I pawed my way through my copy of "Let's Go: France" and discovered that Paris would be significantly warmer than Maine.

In the middle of February we commenced our trip on the tail end of a heavy snowfall. We headed north, out of Boston, out of snow country and, six hours later, into a place that had until that moment been little more than an abstraction.

From the moment we landed in Paris, my son went on autopilot. He had seemingly flash-memorized a map of the somewhat oval-shaped city, enumerating all the sights and the best way to get to them.

On the first day, after we had settled into the hotel, we stepped outside and my son immediately took me by the coat sleeve. "Let's see Notre Dame first!" he gushed as I scrutinized my folding map. "Now wait," I counseled, ever the voice of caution and moderation. "It says here...."

"Follow me!" sang my son, and it was all I could do to stay within earshot as he ran off down a narrow street that was permeated with the aroma of fresh baguettes.

And so it went. The Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, Versailles Tiny Greek restaurants and French cafes. Long walks through ancient, winding streets, and, on our last evening, a boat ride down the Seine, with all of Paris illuminated before us. As we sailed past the Eiffel Tower the clock struck 9 and its latticework exploded with thousands of flashing lights.

My son looked at me, and I could see two miniature Eiffels sparkling in his eyes. I sensed that he wanted to tell me something, but I felt compelled to speak first. "Good choice, Alyosha," was all I managed. "Good choice."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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