Over the course of this semester, I had an internship at the Conservatoire national des arts et métiers (CNAM), conveniently located a block away from the Skidmore Center in the third arrondissement. My role was simple: to speak adult language students of CNAM, leading informal conversations in English. The internship was occasionally quite dull, especially in the beginning. I would pass days without a single student, during which I would hole up with a book and try my best not to fall asleep. However, as the semester progressed, more and more students came regularly and spread good word of mouth about this helpful, unique linguistic opportunity.
I often answered questions about life in the United States, about my opinions/observations of French culture, and about Donald Trump (which I often evaded with a heavy sigh).
There was one woman, Lise, who came nearly every day I was at CNAM (usually about three days per week). She is over seventy years old but is still more active than the majority of my friends. Her little red planner is filled to the brim with volunteer hours, coffee dates, meetings, and other miscellaneous rendez-vous. She is learning English primarily for her son and his family; her son, though French, lives in America with and American woman and Lise feels as though she needs to have stronger English in order to better connect with her American side. It is especially admirable that she is learning a new language so late in her life, as numerous studies affirm that it becomes exponentially more difficult to learn a language even past the age of 25.
Because Lise came nearly every day, we learned a lot about each other. For example, she was an editor of a sociology review for thirty years. She now lives in Bastille in the same building her father bought 60 years ago. Her grandson is named after Swann of Proust’s most famous work. She leads workshops for women who want to “write their lives”, as she specializes in memoir and nonfiction. She always keeps Virginia Woolf on her night stand. And she loves Roland Barthes as much as I do.
My connection with Lise remains, even as I have recently finished my internship at CNAM. We meet for coffee when possible. Just this week, she took me to a local market and then on an admirably long walk on the Promenade Plantée, after which even I was rather tired (I remind you, once more, that this woman is over seventy). She is one of my most cherished connections in Paris, to whom I will always refer as “my Barthes friend,” the lovely name she gave me after we spent an afternoon swooning together over Barthes’ sentences.
We realized this similarity innocently. I said, offhand, that I tended to like fragmented writing, which brought Lise to mention Barthe’s A Lover’s Discourse, a book that I not only brought to Paris with me, but have read and underlined and written about and sighed over, again and again. When Lise invited me over to her house this week for lunch, I spied the same, used edition on her bookshelves and was warmed with a feeling of timelessness. My Barthes friend is ageless; sentences like this live forever:
“To try to write love is to confront the muck of language; that region of hysteria where language is both too much and too little, excessive (by the limitless expansion of the ego, by emotive submersion) and impoverished (by the codes on which love diminishes and levels it).”
-Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse