When I was a baby, I had a nanny named Josephine who came from the Dominican Republic. My family lived in New York then – the New York of the 70s that I would love to have known.
Josephine spoke to me in Spanish, long before I could understand or form words. There’s no doubt, however, that this early exposure stayed with me.
When I started studying Spanish formally in junior high school, the language came easily, my accent hardly noticeable; vocabulary stuck like scotch tape.
Cara K., my best friend, took French classes and I teased her endlessly for it.
“What good will French ever do you?” I ridiculed.
In fact, I charged anyone who chose not to learn Spanish as elitist. By that point we lived in North Carolina where the Latino population was exploding. Spanish was not only useful, but to me, completely beautiful.
Boy, doesn’t karma come back to get you? Spanish had felt wrapped up in my destiny – yet here I am living in French. My mocking laughter at the dreamy girls and waifish boys who took French lessons is now directed firmly at me.
Whereas the Spanish ‘r’s rolled off my tongue effortlessly, the French ‘r’ makes me sound (and feel) as if I’m gagging. Whereas I actually considered conjugating Spanish verbs fun (yes, I’ve told you before I’m a geek), you’ll never, ever catch me conjugating French verbs correctly.
And most importantly, I believed as long as I kept speaking and learning Spanish, fluency would come some day; I felt no barrier, no wall. Fluency in French, however, is not even a fantasy I entertain.
But I look on the bright side: one of Paris’ most redeeming qualities is how simple it is to leave it.
I flew to Seville last Wednesday in just two hours. Expecting sun and warmth (compared to Paris, at least), we instead endured freezing temperatures and disheartening rain nearly the entire time. As it’s a pays chaud (‘hot country’ as the French like to say), they’re not really equipped for cold spells. They’re usually trying to escape the heat, not generate it.
But I won’t complain because I did experience a moment of pure joy: I fell in love with a flamenco dancer.
Yes, a striking woman with long blonde hair and a bold red-dress commanded the stage and suddenly the wind, the rain, the cold didn’t matter. Her heels forced the earth into submission. Her hands moved through the air like poetry. All of the elements seemed contained within her. It was hard not to think “sex” when a male dancer joined her on stage (or is that just me?)
Call it what you want (I’m not sure I’ve ever liked the phrase “Latin temperament”), but this was also something I always felt when I spoke Spanish – freedom, abandon. If the French are stereotypically thought of as good lovers, it’s a seduction a little to studied for me.
The bewitching flamenco dancer electrified every one of us in that damp, crowded room not with subtlety, but with fire, passion, lust. She showed us every emotion that was inside her.
The cafes where we lounged in Seville were chilly from lack of heaters, but buzzing with life, the din formed from animated conversations, stories recounted over tapas and wine. My loud laugh, which I often feel obliged to tuck away in France, would be welcome here. My tears, rage, any and everything – those would be just fine, too.
I won’t romanticize (too late!) because living in the “City of Love” I know how far from reality our imagined ideals can be (and because we were shivering and miserable most of the time).
But I will remember the language that feels close to my heart, the precious things learned as unconsciously as breathing. I’ll bring back the heat of my treasured flamenco dancer and insist on living passionately in Paris, no matter how reserved I sometimes take it to be.
Happy belated V-day, y’all.