I turned on the television this morning and I immediately heard the rolling r’s of la française spewing out of the speakers. An episode of French In Action was playing; young rrrrrobairrrr was sitting stylishly dans un café, probably waiting for Marie. It was remarkable how attractive the characters were – I know the French are renowned for fashion, but did everyone in France look like that? I must pack accordingly.
The episode ended and images were flashed behind the credits depicting which beautiful human played which imaginary character. La Tour Eiffel…L’arc de Triomphe…les champs d’elysees…Notre Dame…all of the usual. I must visit them all and learn about the French.
I had taken the “romantic” language of French for four years in high school. My father wanted me to take Spanish – “it’s more practical” he proclaimed at my 9th grade orientation as I filled out my forms for classes. It was my first form of rebellion against my father – to take French. I was apparently doing the “unpractical, unsafe” thing. I had always mapped out my future, from the time I was in grade school, but this was a rush of wind that swept all the calculated charts and maps of my future into the crisp fall air, and potentially placed my finger on the outline of a new map; a map only with a sandy beach and no horizon.
By the time I reached 11th grade, French had become a part of my identity. At school, I was known as the only person re-elected as the president of the French club, and my telephone was flooded with nightly pleas and queries on Madame’s disoriented instructions. Daily we would recite verb conjugations, take tests, read short stories. Pierre voudrait un sandwich … il y a un écureuil … la service compris? … ça va comme ci comme ca. I received all A’s on my tests, all A’s on my exams, and Madame loved my interpretation of Sartre, Degas, and Lelouche. I was ready for France.
As I stepped off the plane in Paris, I felt my bronze statue of confidence quickly tarnish and rust. The airport signs slowly went from easy to challenging, and the conversations around me weren’t like French In Action. Key phrases were not repeated four times, and a little gray-haired man did not pop up and clearly annunciate a vocabulary word. No, people were in a rush and had no time for the correctly pronounced (yet sluggishly slow) sounds coming out of ma bouche.
I was hesitant to speak, to open my mouth; I thought it might be better to pretend I was mute. I did not want to be perceived as a tourist, and tourists spoke pompous English or carried around French translation books and enormous maps and uttered slow, seemingly juvenile phrases at irritated French citizens, hoping to get a positive response at their butchering of the language these people exalt. No, it was better if I just didn’t speak at all. I was not going to become one of those visitors. I wanted to blend in.
I visited all of the popular images of Paris in silence. Slowly I began to speak for food. I worked my way up from small corner boulangeries to Ladurée, where sweet aromas of tea and macaroons, perfectly displayed sandwiches and artful pastries lured my tongue out of its refuge and hiatus. Finally, when I bought a gift for my mother at Versailles, I did so in French and I was rewarded.
“Vous parlez française très bien!” the woman added, handing me a statuette.
“Pardon?” I didn’t understand.
A slight giggle. “V-o-u-s p-a-r-l-e-z t-r-e-s b-i-e-n…”
“Ah, merci Madame!” I was embarrassed and humbled all at once.
That summer in Paris I learned that bilingualism or multilingualism is not justified by a letter grade on a test or in a language class, just as France is not understood by only visiting her monuments. It was only after I wandered the left bank cafes or stopped and looked at the Seine – after I engaged in the daily life of Parisians – that I truly felt even a sliver of bilingual education. Only then did I begin to justify my so-called high-school identity.
Scorching beads of sweat drizzle down the nape of my neck, settling into a pool as I slide through the narrow doorway into the Café Esperanza. Escaping from the throbbing noon-day sun high in the misty blue sky, my uncle’s sticky hand grabbed mine as he pulled me to refuge from the bustling Paseo de Gracia which lie a mere tip-toe away. After all, at 12:17 in the afternoon, a delectable, golden sweet remains the only reward a Spaniard seeks.
Upon squeezing through the sea of bodies draped in flowing skirts, this red sea parts to unveil the illuminated sheets of glass displaying golden treasures for all to peer. The sweet, tempting aroma of burnt sugar and roasting cinnamon sticks tickle my nose as a sharp glare stings my eyes, and I instantly peer into the luminous glass panels presenting the hundreds of sweet pleasures. Toppled, contorted muffins, oozing with whipped filling, loaded with tissue thin apple slices and dripping with a honey glaze awakened my stomach and a growl escaped as I inched across the deep nutmeg-colored Spanish tiles toward the golden mountains. Finally, I plopped into a crimson pillowed stool in front of the treasure-engulfed bar. After 45 minutes in the chair, my stomach growls increasing in length and depth, like a lion ready for its feast, a mysterious arm slapped my muffin before me on the ebony bar ledge tucked against my torso. Even the dense wood sagged with heat and condensation, weighed down by the treasures it held.
With each bite, my teeth sank deeper into the moistly plump gold, devouring it in a mere second. The lion became instantly silenced, lulled into hibernation, and my eyes wandered about me. Now the thick air from the darkly paved street seeped into the café, molding around the figures pressed up against one another, from whose lips Catalan phrases rolled off. To my right, steam angrily spewed from the silver cappuccino machines like trains sent to deliver dozens of tiny porcelain cups full of espresso to the others begging for service. On the surrounding walls, fire red symbols and curling letters immersed in a sky of black on chalk boards suspended crookedly where bare backs of squirming customers were not already caressing. I felt immersed in a bucket of red and gold hues; even the music swimming from the rectangular speakers in the four corners of the room seemed red and gold, seeping deep, background rhythms subdued by the tender cherubic plucking of guitar strings.
Even as the thick wind settled between standing bodies, engulfing the café, even as the deep rays of the golden sun died into the black evening sky, the walls never bared their cracks and weathered holes, for when noon blanketed itself with dark shrouds, and the Barcelona streets crawled with painted faces and sequined tops, bouncing music against the opal moon, those same treasure-seekers who found refuge in the Esperanza return to their chest of gold.
Vivid clashes of voices and porcelain, rolling intonations and blood red rugs float to my memory. I was born into this identity, I did not ask for it, nor did I seek it at first. I was never taught how to pronounce Farsi; I never asked. But despite the imminent and heart-wrenching seclusion from family conversations at Noorooz (Persian New Year), and although I couldn’t translate my grandmother’s daily prayers, Farsi has always been a part of my identity, a part of my blood.
No, I couldn’t translate, but I could feel the words, feel each sound, feel each scrolling, liquidated sweep of the pen when my mother would write messages to her family – to my family. Farsi has always been a language I refer to as the language of my mother, the language of my mother’s family. But I often forget that it is my language as well. And although I cannot speak it, it is as much a part of me as English.
When I was six years old, I went to the magical land of my relatives. In one week, my mother tells me, I was fluent. Now my fluency consists mostly of affection rather than clarity or precision.
Farsi is the language of my blood, and like the deep red threads that run throughout the Persian rugs I witnessed in the grand bazaar as a little wide-eyed American girl, it stands out from the other, muted colors, as the richest and most passionate of all. It is the red that attracts you to the rug, the color of the design that dominantly and beautifully unifies, yet it is the deepness and richness of the color and design that makes each rug unique. Persian is the richest part of my bilingualism, and although I cannot speak it, I will feel it forever running through me, defining my passions, my attractions, my unique design.