The Way I Learned French

Notebook

By Nikhita Venugopal

I was 10 when I first met Albert. It was 2000 and I was standing at the door of an unfamiliar home, clutching a notebook, a pencil and a textbook on French language, and hiding behind my older brother. An elderly Indian man opened the door. He had a slight hunch and was just a few inches taller than I, bald except for flecks of gray near his temples. A pair of gold-rimmed spectacles rested on his hook-shaped nose. He looked mildly surprised to see us, but pleased nonetheless.

This was Albert and I was there to learn French from him. My middle school required that I learn a new language, but a few months into class it became apparent that I was rubbish at it. Albert had tutored my brother a few years earlier and my parents were hoping to continue the tradition.

Albert was a professor at St. Joseph’s College in Bangalore, India, before he retired and settled down as a part-time tutor for children in the neighborhood. He had stopped tutoring the year before and was hesitant to take on a beginner like myself. But he knew my family well and so he conceded, starting a twice-a-week regimen of classes that continued for almost six years.

Albert lived alone on a quiet residential street lined with squat Old-Bangalore bungalows. His modest one story-home smelled like cough drops and dust. In the living room, a large brown couch rested against a cream colored wall with a yellowish tinge. Knick-knacks and magazines packed every corner, neatly arranged in showcases and piled under the coffee table. An old transistor radio, still in working condition, was perched on a table by the window.

This was where Albert and I would go over verbs, tenses, vocabulary and dictation.

“Now repeat after me: Je suis, Tu es, Il est, Elle est,” he would say, patiently.

But we usually digressed to topics beyond French verbs. We chatted about Lance Armstrong and ‘Funny Girl,’ his favorite musical. Albert talked about his brother and closest surviving relative, who lived in Australia. He would tell me about the years he spent studying French in Paris. He complained about the stray white cat that would slip through his window and curl up on his bed.  

“That damn cat!”

Albert began to look forward to our tutoring days together. I was a regular source of company, even if it was just for an hour on Wednesdays and Fridays. One afternoon, I followed him outside to the yard next to his house. He pointed to a small cactus plant at the corner of his garden. Someone’s initials had been carved into it.

“Those are Sarah’s,” said Albert, referring to the girl, about my age, who lived next door. “If you carve your name on the cactus plant, it will stay there forever.”

That was all the persuasion I needed. I ran back into the house, grabbed a sturdy ballpoint pen and began to etch “N.V” onto the stem. Albert laughed as I hacked my name into the plant. He asked me to inscribe my brother’s initials too. I did, but grumbled at having to include him.

A lot of children scrawled their initials onto Albert’s cactus plant. Each saw the other kids’ names and wanted to etch their own. He knew all the children in the neighborhood and their families, too. They would pass by his house and call out to him, but he would never just wave back. He would ask about last week’s math test. He would send good wishes to parents and aunty Reena who was visiting from abroad. He would hand out biscuits and sweets, if he had any in his home.

But even though Albert knew us so well, we knew very little about him. Albert was his surname, and none of us knew his first name. In the years I knew him, as my brother’s teacher and then my own, he never told me what it was.

“It’s a secret,” he would say.

As years passed, I had gotten better at French and didn’t really need a tutor anymore. In the 11th grade, I opted out of French at school and so my classes with Albert came to an end. I promised to keep in touch, and I did for a while. On Christmas, my mum sent him plum pudding and he thanked her with a card addressed to my family. I occasionally stopped by his house with soup for a few minutes of conversation. But Albert became a smaller and smaller part of my life, and soon after, I stopped calling or visiting him. I was 16 and rarely concerned with anything or anyone outside my world.

About a year later, I contacted him again. I had just received the results of my high school final exams and I thought he might like to know. I picked up the phone and dialed his number.

“Hello?” I heard him say.

“Hi Albert, it’s Nikki!”

“Oh, hello.”

The conversation lasted about a minute.

“You promised that you’d keep in touch, but you never did. And now I’m unwell and I’m very upset. I need to go.” That’s what I remember him saying before he ended the call.

That was the last time I spoke to Albert. I left for college soon after, and my family moved to a new neighborhood. Four years ago, I moved to New York.

I had recently been toying with the idea of taking a refresher course in French and I finally did a few months ago at a bookshop in Cobble Hill. I made meager attempts to brush up and even considered asking my mum to mail my tattered copy of “Cours de Langue et de Civilisation Françaises.”

My teacher was a middle-aged Parisian named Maurice. The class of five women met him every Tuesday night.

In every session, Maurice would pose a question in French and each of us were to answer as best we could in simple sentences – Quelle est votre profession? Qu’est-ce que vous aimez faire le weekend?   

Maurice would often chat (in French) about his own life, mostly to improve our conversation skills. He had moved to New York more than two decades ago. In college he would try to sit in the front of his class and ask as many questions as he could. He kept a journal to help him learn English.

We ended the classes in December after only eight weeks but I felt exhilarated. To hear myself forming words and sentences I thought I had left behind, on that brown couch in Bangalore, was comforting and I was ready to learn more.

Two weeks into the new year, I received an email from the bookshop – Maurice, 46, had died after what was described as a brief illness.

I’ve since thought of Albert. Almost a decade has gone by since my last phone conversation with him. There were a few occasions where I picked up the phone to call him again, but never did. The child in you doesn’t want to believe your parents will grow older. You want to believe they will live on to protect you, teach you. I am afraid to find out whether I have lost my mentor and friend.

I’m still reminded of him when I see an old French movie playing on TV or a particularly fat white cat. My knowledge of French will probably fade but those memories remain, somewhat like letters etched onto the stem of a little cactus plant that sits in the corner of a yard, collecting dust.

Nikhita Venugopal is a journalist based in New York. You can follow her on Twitter @nkvenugopal.

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