Each day, I woke, washed, dressed, had a breakfast of bread and chocolate, and walked to the train station. The train’s punctuality strained the perceived limits of human engineering. So I was always on time, for I felt that to be here, among the real things, and stray from my appointed place was to abet some great evil. From the Corseaux-Cornalles station, I would train into Vevey and then transfer to another train to Montreux. I would then walk five minutes to the language school—the purpose of my visit—and the work would begin.
I started studying French in the summer of 2011, in the throes of a mid-30s crisis. I wanted to be young again. Once, imagination was crucial to me. The books filled with trains, the toy tracks and trestles—they were among my few escapes from a world bounded by my parents’ will. In those days, I could look at a map of some foreign place and tell you a story about how the people there looked, how they lived, what they ate for dinner, and the exotic beauty of the neighborhood girls.
When you have your own money, your own wheels, and the full ownership of your legs, your need for such imagination, or maybe your opportunity to exercise it, is reduced.
And then I came to a foreign language, where so much can’t be immediately known, and to a small town where English feels like the fourth language. The signs were a mystery to me. The words I overheard were only the music of the human voice. A kind of silence came over me. I would hear snatches of conversation, or witness some strange way of behaving—the bartender’s reply, in French, of “Service” after you thank him for a drink—and wonder would take over.
I studied four hours every day at the school. Class began promptly at 8:30 a.m. (2:30 a.m. back in New York). I nursed a nasty bit of jet lag, but wonder drove me. Hearing a foreign language is like seeing a postcard from some other land, even when you are actually in that other land. I experienced my ignorance of words and grammar as a physical distance, as a longing for something that was mere inches away. In that gap, there was all the magic of childhood.
I stayed with a host family and took my dinners with them. These were awesome affairs—wine, cheese, meat, chocolate. They took no pity on me. They bombarded me with French, and from snatches of body language, from a smile or a frown, I deduced what I could. I went through entire dinners—and even engaged in conversations—during which I understood only snatches.
We spent those evenings talking, our gestures making up for a paucity of shared words. But I knew, in some unnameable way, that they were good people. And from that, I could tell how two people with no shared language could fall easily and deeply in love; how the way a man expresses longing, or a woman expresses possibility, could be like discovery; how an entire person could be, to another, a long, dark country.