Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Time Travel: Circle of Friends

Here's another reflection from items that were part of my Time Capsule that I created in college and opened in 2010. You can read my first post here.

I scanned the bookshelves in the airport bookstore looking for some new company. I had just spent three weeks studying French in an immersion program in Quebec. We were back on American soil, and minutes before I had parted ways with the other American students who had accompanied me on this adventure. So much had happened in three weeks' time. I was a different person now, and I was beginning the re-entry process of speaking my mother tongue again. I was sandwiched between two languages. The French that had been so foreign was now readily accessible, but now there was no one to speak it to or with. My friends—the only ones who could possibly understand this strange space in my head—had gone on to their own gates. I was alone in my bilingual exhausted no man's language land. I missed them, and the time we'd spent together.

My eyes studied the titles and landed on Circle of Friends by Maeve Binchy. The title offered me the promise of new friendships and I took it to the counter. I read it on the plane, and the homesickness for my friends and my French speaking eased as Binchy's storytelling drew me in.

We arrived on campus after dark, tired from travel and scared about what was to come. We were given a quick orientation. “You may speak English tonight, but in the morning only French. For the next three weeks FRENCH ONLY. We will send you home if we hear you utter English.” It was daunting. I had saved the money my grandmother had given me to spend on college experiences, and I had no intention of getting sent home.

We were shuttled to our dorms. Poor Joey, the only guy among the four of us, went to his empty dorm. The three of us girls had the benefit of being assigned the same suite.

The four of us stood in the hallway the first morning scared and energized. Each of our French language abilities were different, so we were assigned separate classrooms. Due to differing school calendars, we were entering the program three weeks late. We were the “new kids” entering class mid-session. It was terrrifying, but there was no going back. We said our au revoirs and stepped through the doorways into these brave new worlds.

I had the least French instruction, so I did well to blurt out, “Bonjour! Je m'appelle Julie Steele. Je suis americaine.” I was welcomed and offered a seat.

The Quebec accent is so different from the Parisian accent that I was accustomed to in class in the States. It's like the southern drawl of English. The Canadian mouth forms French sounds differently than in France. It required every bit of concentration to make it through each class.

We decompressed each evening in our apartment dormitory unwinding from an exhaustive day of listening and speaking French. We broke the rules. We spoke ONLY ENGLISH when we were together out of earshot of our professors. Our French suffered in those hours, but our young twenty-something selves had big ideas to ponder. Too grande were the ideas for our wee petite French vocabularies. And so French it was by day, and English by night. Twenty years later, I can still conjure the warmth and caring and hilarity of those conversations and wouldn't trade that for anything.

We ate lunch with our American professor Mme. Jaeger every day and downloaded the morning's lessons. In broken French I told her, “I have so much to tell you and no words to express it all.” She smiled and told me to just start and she would help me. Ten minutes into the conversation I realized I was speaking to my teacher in fluid, fluent French. It was exhilerating.

I remember very little about the plot even though I've read Circle of Friends twice. What's important is that it's the mental postcard that conjures memories that will last a lifetime. It reminds me of the souvenirs of that trip: friendship, French language, courage, and determination.

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