How I became a Frenchman--part 1
How I became a Frenchman
In May of 2009, I officially received a Master’s Degree in French from the University of Hawaii at Manoa; after a six-hour written exam, I could’ve received my degree in January 2008, but I wanted to take a yoga class in the Spring semester, and I asked the Graduate School to postpone issuing my diploma so as to allow me to register for the yoga class.
“Most people just want to get their diploma and get out of here,” said the young Japanese-American woman who staffed the window at the Graduate Division; she gave me a quizzical look, checked with the dean’s assistant, and changed my student status from alumnus to continuing thus allowing me to register and to linger at the university for a semester of leisure—my last hurrah of playing a student second time around, in middle age.
Thus I officially became a diplomated (sic) Frenchman even though I’ve never been to France, having acquired the language entirely from books and occasional tapes.
This story renders itself to being told more from the end than from the beginning, and it is thus that I will proceed.
I became a Frenchman more or less by accident; it happened like this.
In the fall of 2004, after having paid off debts that dogged me from the early 1990-ies, I decided to return to school to improve my knowledge of the Hebrew language. The fledgling Hebrew Language Program was in its second year, being run on a trial basis and taught by a lecturer, Iris Yoeli who had a Master’s Degree and was a native speaker of Hebrew and a very good teacher. Not having studied Hebrew since the summer of 1979, I joined the first level class and enjoyed reviving the dormant knowledge of that beautiful and rich language.
One day, I decided to visit Iris in her office which was on the fourth floor of Moore Hall where the European and Classical Language Divisions’ offices were situated. My teacher was not there, and I lingered a few minutes trying to decide what to do. Since I looked older than a typical student, I inadvertently aroused suspicion of the division’s secretary who passed me in the hallway and asked rather brusquely, "What are you doing here?” So there I was, a slightly winded Joe College in early middle age pegged as a possible loafer. I say a little winded because the older I became, the more I grew averse to the restrictive confines of metal boxes commonly referred to as elevators, and thus on that day, I trudged up to the fourth floor so as to use the stairs of a building instead of a Stair Master apparatus in a gym full of sweaty elevator-loving zombies on stationary Stair-Master tread mills. Having just climbed to the fourth floor, I decided to improvise and said to the secretary, “I’m looking for someone with whom I could practice…Italian conversation.” This I thought could be a rational reason for my presence at the Literature and Languages of Europe and Americas’ division, and if my request were to be fulfilled, I would have justified my muscle-effort in spades. Little did I know that I was just about to set an exercise-pattern for years to come.
“Go in there,” the secretary barked more than said, pointing at an open door down the hallway.
I had no idea where I was going or what sort of reception I could expect. I was met by a pleasant looking European lady who responded to my Italian—a language which I taught myself in the mid 1990-ies because I liked the sound of the language as it reminded me of a three and a half months’ sojourn there in 1976 when I was a teenager.
We spoke in Italian for several minutes, and as I became more comfortable in the professor’s office, I noticed that most of the books on the shelves had French titles. I asked the lady whether she spoke French, and upon receiving her affirmative reply, we switched into that language.
French was easier for me; I learned it in the 1980-ies at the University of Wisconsin where I studied as an undergraduate; I worked on the language by reading French books since then.
We spoke for about fifteen minutes when my interlocutor said to me, “Why don’t you come and join our division as a graduate student?”
I said, “I’m fairly busy. I’m teaching English at night at a business school, and I’m taking care of my aging mother.”
“If you join our division,” she said, “we will give you a class to teach, and you will be able to take as many courses as you like for free.”
When she said this, I sat up straight and started paying attention. It was at that moment that I finally read the plaque on her door—“her name and next to it the title, Chairman of the French Division”. She told me where to go and which documents to fill out, but even though I went through the motions, I was still dubious that this would come to anything.
Six weeks later, I stood in front of my first French class at the university level. With eighteen years of teaching English at universities and community colleges behind me, this was an interesting adjustment as French was not my native language. I loved the challenge. I went on to teach four semesters running as a Graduate Assistant at the French Division of the University of Hawaii at Manoa between 2005 and 2007.
I also took an overload on languages. In addition to the two mandatory French Literature and language courses required by the French Division, I studied Hebrew, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese (minimum of four semesters of each); after I finished most of my required course-work, I also managed to audit Sanskrit which I found to be the well-spring of my native Russian—many of the words being very similar in sound and meaning.
In retrospect, it’s amazing to me that based on a brief oral interview, a French person from Paris, should’ve believed so much in my ability as to have given me such a tremendous opportunity to teach and learn; she did not have to do it and stood nothing to gain by being kind to me, and yet she gave me a job. I will never forget her kindness.
This was not the first time that the French were good to me on the island of Oahu, Hawaii. I had another good friend, a former French Foreign Attaché whose name was Pierre Brisard. I met him in the Spring of 1988, in the parking lot at Kailua Beach. It was morning, and I was unloading my windsurfing board from the top of my car when I saw an older European gentleman with an Asian child, and they were speaking French. I thought that this was a grandfather with his grandson, and I asked whether they were from Tahiti. He replied in the negative and we began our conversation. (But this is a story for another time)