Je me souviens – Français et l’amour de cette langue qui a ouvert la voie à un garçon

My family is infamous, as am I, for being Anglophiles. My house is full of British things. There is a map of London in my family room, the Brighton skyline on my bedroom wall (in a frame, not taking up the entire wall!). I complain if my tea is Lipton and have been known to take my own bags of Yorkshire tea to Starbucks, telling the barista, “Look, I’ll pay for a brewed tea with skim milk, but please could you use this bag instead? Cheers.” My love for all things British, which has been a constant in my life since my mother and aunt went to London without me and I tearfully wrote “I’M NEVER GOING TO GET TO GO TO LONDON” with a bunch of sad faces, often overshadows another country and culture that I also love with every fibre of my being – France and the French.

When I was in sixth grade, my parents decided I should go to private school for middle school. In my area, most private schools tend to be Catholic. We aren’t. Most of these Catholic schools only offer Spanish or Latin. The school I ended up attending was a small school founded with a Christian basis but did not teach religion. The language they offered was French.

I fell in love on the first day of seventh grade with a language I barely knew, yet it slipped onto my tongue like a glove. My only exposure to the language had been a song we learned in choir camp the previous summer, “Ton Thé”(FYI – singing in French is actually super hard especially if you’re like me and are really particular about pronunciation. A Parisian man once told me I spoke great French, a Parisian student once informed me that I spoke beautifully – I’ve achieved things in my life but these are some of my proudest moments). Because my teacher used complete immersion, we had to either Frenchify our names or, if our names held zero French roots, we would be named accordingly (Kyle and Garrett were Christophe and Giles). I successfully avoided being named “Marine” (I shit you not, this is only exceptionally funny to me for reasons that I’m not even getting into) and adopted my middle name, Corinne.

I began clamouring for a visit to Paris. I would throw casual French phrases into my everyday conversations. I lived for the hour on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays that my class would walk down the hallway to the French classroom (when I was in 8th grade, it was moved to the basement. Also, my beloved teacher had her second baby that year, so was on maternity leave for most of it. I used to wonder how a classic American beauty ended up naming her children some of the French-est names ever but it makes far much more sense to me now). I learned about the Francophone countries, but didn’t pay much attention to them. I learned stupid verb conjugation and vocabulary songs that still sometimes pop into my brain (“Avoir, avoir, pour la possession/J’ai, tu as, il a, nous avons, vous avez, ils ont, avoir, avoir !” “Janvier, février, mars, avril, MAI JUIN. Juillet, aout, septembre, octobre, noVEMBRE, DECEMBER.” “Je suis, tu es, il est, elle est, nous sommes, vous êtes, ils sont ici, elles sont ici, à la court de Louis XIV !“). We went to see Les Miserables, I tried escargot and it was a love between girl and culture that I can’t even explain.

When I started high school, I skipped French I and headed directly into French II. I took two years longer of a language than was required because although I didn’t love my teacher until senior year, I loved the language (my teacher did not like me very much either, mainly because languages come naturally to me and I didn’t take her class as seriously as I should have. My nickname from her was Petite Diable, and it wasn’t until my final year that we really clicked). I translated the Madeline videos I was so fond of as a child into French because the poor pronunciation and awful accents made me cringe. When our class read Le Petit Prince by Antoine de St-Exupéry, I fell in love harder than anyone in my class and still have my copy of the book. I embraced our tiny class’s Francophone cooking once a month, learning how to make perfect crepes and poutine (had to get something Quebecois in there!).

But it was my junior year when I went to Paris for the first time…and it was not love at first sight. I went on a school trip over spring break, we combined with the Spanish classes to travel to Barcelona and Madrid as well, we stayed in a terrible hotel and the weather just wasn’t good. Montmartre was full of string bracelet sellers (although Sacre-Coeur was lovely and I truly do appreciate the artistry of the area), we weren’t allowed to check out the Moulin Rouge, we didn’t have enough time to investigate the entirety of the Louvre, I didn’t get to see the Monet paintings I wanted to see (they’re in the Orangérie, which is through the Jardin de Tuileries). I preferred Barcelona with the Gaudi artwork and architecture, seaside view and the liquor store where I purchased my first absinthe. I left Europe after 10 days feeling incredibly disappointed – it was as though the hot guy I had lusted after for 5 years actually watched My Little Pony and smelled like Doritos.

As most people know, I studied abroad in Brighton spring semester of my junior year in college. That April, my mother flew to Paris and I took the train through the chunnel to meet her. And it was as though that hot guy who smelled like Doritos and watched My Little Pony traded in for Mad Men and Chanel Bleu pour Hommes. I fell in love with the perfectly warm Paris sun, with the bells of Notre Dame. I fell in love with the lights of the Eiffel Tower at night and with the Bateau-Bus that took its passengers everywhere on the Seine. I fell in love with the water lilies and Monets at the Orangérie. I fell in love with the giant clock in the Musée D’Orsay. I fell in love with Ladurée and macarons, with the palace of Versailles. I loved the fact that I could navigate and pass for a native, tell gypsies trying to ring scam my mother and I to “fuck off,” figure out the ploys of the security guards at the Louvre who had no patience for bossy Americans. I left Paris after four days incredibly sad to be leaving and incredibly eager to return.

When I graduated college with a minor in French, my sorority has a tradition where our “families” prophesies your future based on things they know about you. My family had me meeting my future spouse tripping over a street crack in London. They envisioned me with an English man who was hopelessly polite, made me tea and knew that I preferred cider to beer. He would walk with me through Hyde Park whilst we shared an umbrella and we would raise a crop of incredibly polite tea-drinking children. But, wait. Didn’t they know I had a soft spot for boys who could switch between French and English on a dime, who knew which cheeses paired best with which wines, who would call me his chérie  and know that Printemps isn’t just a season?

Well, like Hannah Montana, I think I’ve got the best of both worlds. I found a guy with a panty-melting English accent, who knows that I prefer cider to beer so always has them for me and who knows that the best way to get me to do anything for him is to tuck my hair behind my ear, lean in close and whisper – in his native tongue, French.

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How changing The Nutcracker is bringing me full circle

I have a soft spot for classical music and it’s not because I played the viola for a year (I would like everyone to know that at my elementary school, when you hit fourth grade, you could take “Strings” and learn to play violin, viola, cello or bass and I never made it to Intermediate Strings because I am awful at the viola and the teacher had a major set of crazy eyes). When I was three, my earliest dreams were confections crafted entirely of sugar plums and candy floss skirts and shoes that allowed you to truly seek the heights – I wanted to be a ballerina more than anything.

I watched Baryshnikov’s The Nutcracker in my family room wearing a pink tutu and slippers, attempting to mimic moves I wouldn’t learn for years (Years later, I went back and watched this version of The Nutcracker for nostalgia’s sake. I’m surprised they managed to have a land of snow because Baryshnikov was packing serious heat). I had a ballerina themed birthday party at which one of my mum’s patients, a dancer herself, gave me one of her old pointe shoes with a silver glitter “M” embossed on it – I loved it. I would try it on regularly, obviously not fitting the shoe at all, but dreaming of the day that I would have my own pair of pink satin pointe shoes. And then my mother signed me up for ballet lessons, which I loved and tap lessons, which I hated. Over my decade long dance career I would dabble in tap, jazz, modern dance and Irish step in addition to ballet.

I’ve danced many roles, some bordering on “typical child ballerina” roles to the bizarre – a snowflake, a Mock Turtle (Alice in Wonderland), a gumdrop (Hansel and Gretel), Ireland (I don’t even know), a doll (Coppelia), a flute dancer (no clue), Italian Tarantella (no idea), gold (Snow White), an ice fairy and the Russian Trepak (The Nutcracker) and a maiden (Giselle). I’ve sprained my ankles more times than anyone can count and danced on them anyways (I sprain my ankles now routinely because my studio put me en pointe before the muscles in my ankles were truly strong enough to support me. They roll like dice in Vegas and I’ve invested in many Ace bandages).

As a former ballerina who has not donned her shoes in a decade, there are many things I can’t do anymore. My ankles lack the strength to rock pointe shoes. My toes are no longer so calloused they can withstand being pressed down into blocks of wood. I can’t walk without rolling my ankles. And I can no longer subsist on 1,200 calories a day. A lot has changed since I stopped dancing, but one thing is always consistent – the moves and the ballets themselves.Whenever I need to pound through a workout or just feel super comforted, I find myself searching through my music library to find pieces from Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, The Firebird and Coppelia to bring me back to something I can rely on to stay the same.

I recently went to see the Washington Ballet perform The Nutcracker and I can describe that experience in one word: um…okay? Don’t get me wrong – it was incredibly well danced and the music made me so nostalgic I cried four times before Act II and spent the snow scene surreptitiously wiping away tears (I danced as an Ice Fairy for far too long but still – I get super ballet nostalgic. Ice Fairy was the first rite of passage role signifying the transition to a more grown-up part but it was so slow and boring). I can’t stress enough how incredible the dancing was. You know ballet is done properly when it looks effortless.

However, I am a traditionalist and if you mess with my ballet I will not be happy. The Nutcracker used to get me so excited for Christmas. I would leave the theatre incredibly excited, counting the days until Christmas morning. I left the theatre not even thinking about Christmas after the performance yesterday. Why? Because they took everything great about the ballet and replaced it with America. I wish I were joking.

But the Harlequin doll became John Paul Jones, the dancing doll was Lady Liberty. The Land of Sweets became DC’s cherry blossoms in springtime. The Nutcracker looked like George Washington. The mice were British. Spanish chocolate became dancing colonials. Arabian coffee became Native Americans. Chinese tea became a fish and fishermen. The reed pipes were cardinals, the snowflakes were butterflies, there were squirrels and a fox and mushrooms. What broke my heart was that my personal favourite,the Russian Trepak, which I danced for two years, became frontiersmen in Davy Crockett caps. And I understand adding a twist to a classic production but I wanted snowflakes and candy canes. I wanted a dreamy world of sweets, not the place I run in the springtime. I wanted a heroic nutcracker prince, not a founding father of the United States.

The dancing was, as I mentioned, phenomenal. And it brought up that familiar lump in my throat I get whenever I watch Black Swan or Center Stage. It activated that fever I have whenever I conjugate French verbs and come across dégager or échapper. My toes started twitching because it’s been so long since they were wrestled into shoes that are essentially designed to torture and warp them. I can’t even remember the last time the tops of my toes had blisters.

So I made an executive decision. I’m heading back to the barre. I pulled out my last pair of pink satin pointes today. I found them in a bag containing one lone jazz shoe, ghillies (those would be the soft Irish dance shoes), jig shoes (hard Irish dancing shoes) and a pair of split sole soft ballet slippers. I did my usual prep routine – wrapping my toes in lambs’ wool, lacing the satin ribbons just so around my ankles. Then I stood. I felt pain, searing pain because I actually have toenails now and you can’t when you switch to pointe. But mostly I felt just a sweet relief and a sense of remembering my first love, the ballet barre.

And to think, it only took a few squirrels, some butterflies and George Washington to push me to head back to it.