J’Oublie: a language lost but words not forgotten


Grand Place
The Grand Place, Brussels, Belgium


I wish I spoke more than one language. I am monolingual (how utterly parochial of me). I’ve never had much success learning languages in a classroom. I took Italian in high school and, despite being the top student in the class, I could not carry on a conversation when visiting family in Rome. When I first was married I signed up for Greek classes at the local church, but I soon gave up.

This afternoon, as I strolled along the path by the stream, random memories arose in my mind’s eye for no particular reason at all.  I remembered conversations I had with friends 28 years ago in Brussels, Belgium. But how is that possible, I thought to myself, when we did not speak a common language?

A lifetime ago, I met a Moroccan man in Brussels. He did not speak English. I did not speak Arabic, Spanish, French, none of the languages he spoke. We had a one night stand. Then I left. One month later, I returned. We met up again. I stayed for five months blowing off my planned Eurail trip. Then I returned home to New York.

I got a job. I got an apartment. I re-enrolled in college where I took a French Immersion class. My Moroccan man and I kept in touch for a while with phone calls and letters. It was impossible to find a way for him to come to America. Mostly it was a question of money. Something neither one of us had much of.  Eventually, the affair dwindled like fireworks in a darkened night sky.

I continued studying French at college. I made a friend in art class who was from Paris, France. We conversed at times in French. He helped me get the humour in what I found to be dumb French comics, proving once again that humour is cultural. When his mother came to visit, he introduced me to her in French saying: “She speaks French, but like an Arab” That was almost right. I had picked up French from Arabic-speaking Berbers in Belgium.

The last time I used French was in 1998 when I worked with an Algerian woman in an English Language Learning Lab at a community college. Even by then grammar was slipping away from me. I often had to code-switch to talk about work related things for which I had no vocabulary in French.

Now I don’t remember much French other than random phrases. Still I recall conversations I had with people 28 years ago in a country across the sea and in a language that is lost to me. I hear their words, in my head, in English when they did not speak English. The mind is a fascinatingly accommodating matter.


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