How five years of learning French finally paid off! | When the pandemic shut the world in 2020, a young man in India is forced to move back home, only to realize, this may just be the perfect time to try France.
Story by Piyush Mishra
(feature photo: Ventdusud-iStock)
It hadn’t been long since I moved a continent away from my family and friends — all the way to the south of France, to the city of Marseille. There are many reasons why I moved to France – one of them was that I wanted to speak more French. It had always saddened me that I had studied the language for five years but had completely lost it because I never got the chance to use it in Delhi, where you only use it if you are either a French professor, or if you work at the embassy.
I had also worked with some researchers in Marseille remotely from India and would meet others when they would visit India for conferences. Given the circumstances, moving to Marseille felt like the most logical decision for me once my bachelor’s degree ended — at least to me, even though most people around me back in India didn’t understand it (but supported it nonetheless).
So, in September 2021, I moved there to pursue a master’s in bioinformatics, a field of research that interests me a lot. Everything there, however, was still very new for me. In mid-November, I impulsively decided to go to the southern French countryside. It would be my first solo train trip, ever.
My trip came as a reprieve from a set of very hectic weekdays, which is why I was all the more excited. I decided to go to the small town of Montélimar in the Drôme department of France, the town where nougat comes from. Most French people have never been to this town, and others wouldn’t be able to place it on a map. So I knew I was about to have a very unique experience.
The sunny Saturday had already been quite eventful, and it was only half-past noon. I had gone to the railway station very early because I was extremely anxious about the two whole hours of travelling that I was going to do.
Then, I had a scare that my phone was stolen because I thought I had kept it in one pocket when it was in another. (This was largely manifested because I was already on edge due to the countless stories of pickpocketing that have supposedly happened in the city center: the very week I came to France, my professor’s work laptop and phone were stolen; and even Marseille locals make it a point to drive in the sentiment among foreigners who come here, that one should really take care of one’s belongings when one is in the city.)
Thankfully, it turned out to be only a scare. (Personally, I have found the people of Marseille to be fairly kind.) Then, when boarding the train, my ticket just would not scan. A kind older man, who later told me his name was Laurent, helped me enter. I was scared that I had the wrong ticket for some reason, but apparently, it was just an issue with the machine. So, my day was not going smoothly, and my anxiety wasn’t helping either.
I chatted a bit with kind old Laurent, who told me that he spent a sizable chunk of his life in Montélimar but was visiting family in the nearby town of Orange, and was travelling all the way from the Italian border. He was curious to know why I was visiting Montélimar, as it isn’t really a vacation destination for people my age: it isn’t a big multicultural city like Marseille or Paris, and most people living there are usually retired pensioners.
I told him I was visiting a friend. As Laurent left, I thanked him again for the help — we will most likely never meet again, but I will never forget the man who helped me with my first train ride in France. I had a few more towns to cross before I would reach Montélimar.
I reached Montélimar after a train ride overlooking the Rhône River, to find Steven waiting for me in the parking lot of the railway station. Steven was the friend I told Laurent I was there to visit. To illustrate my friendship with Steven, I will have to first illustrate my relationship with the French language.
I still remember the very first day of my French class in school: I was probably 10 years old, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to be fluent in this new language I had chosen to learn. I had to somewhat convince my parents to let me take French instead of Sanskrit (which everyone in my family knew, so consequently could help me with).
Anyhow, a few weeks into my French courses, I quickly realized that it was becoming more of a chore than a language skill to acquire; yet still I persevered for five years. By the end, I didn’t “want” to learn it anymore, but “had” to because of the credits. I lost interest and wasn’t advancing — I had bigger fish to fry now, I thought, and had to decide what to do with my career instead.
For the next few years, I kept French at the back of my mind while dealing with other curveballs life offers during one’s formative late teenage years. I moved to the east of India, to pursue a bachelor’s degree in computer science, which also made me learn more about my own native language, Odia, since my parents come from that region. (It suffices to say that languages have affected a lot of my decisions.)
I was moving on with life, planning how I would want to lead it — until that all changed. In 2020, when the pandemic hit and everything closed, I had nothing to do. Everything shut down, and I moved back to my parents’ house in suburban Delhi.
While most people were making sourdough bread and posting about it on Instagram, I decided to take up French again. (I did try baking, but realized I wasn’t as passionate about it.) I tried to immerse myself as much as I could in the language: watching only French media with French subtitles, changing the language settings on my phone and computer to French so I would be forced to look at the language, etc. In this attempt, I encountered a language learning community on the internet, a community with members eager to learn my languages, and help me with their own.
I met Steven in this very community, a French man involved in clinical psychology, who also was interested in different cultures and languages. We talked to each other about normal day-to-day life, in an attempt for me to become fluent in French. (And it worked! I remember Steven once asking me if one of my parents spoke French, because he refused to believe I had learnt it as a foreign language!)
We didn’t really know each other before I moved to France, which is weird because we had talked about a lot of things: my career, his career, religion, spirituality, my research, and the research I wanted to do. Steven and I had been talking a lot before I moved to Marseille, and when I did, he offered to come and visit me in Marseille.
I remember confiding in him my apprehensions of moving away from home a few weeks before my flight to Marseille, and he told me, “It is difficult to detach oneself from the things and the people one is attached to, but doing that will only make us grow; a lot of our sufferings come from this, excessive attachment.”
Back in Montélimar, at the train station, it took me some time to recognize Steven since he had shaved his beard. But he recognized me instantly and waved at me. I waved in reply, still doubting if I was waving to the right person and perhaps making a fool of myself. As it turned out, it was indeed him.
We got into his car and headed to his home, where he had made me lunch: a “gratin” of a special kind of a gourd local to that area. I had gotten him some Indian sweets, kaju katli, that my parents had sent from India for Diwali.
The entire setting in Montélimar, in and of itself, was quite quaint, with old churches repurposed into houses, and a big old park just outside the front porch. The view outside the window was as if it were from a different time altogether, as if I was transported to another century: old southern houses with cattle grazing on their large backyards, people speaking with a little southern twang that sounded extremely welcoming, drastically different from the stereotypical big-city snobbishness. It was another one of those “I really am in France” moments.
After our delicious lunch, Steven made me taste some cheeses that he had at home, as one does when one is in France; I sampled picodon and bleu du Vercors. I felt extremely French doing that.
Soon after, two of Steven’s high-school friends joined us, and we spent time chatting and getting to know each other more. One of them was bilingual in French and German, so I was already invested. Then we decided to go hiking at Poupoune, a hill in a small village called Saou, just outside Montélimar.
Back in September, when Steven had first come to visit me in Marseille, we had climbed onto a cliff overlooking the azure-turquoise-coloured Mediterranean Sea. This time, there was no Mediterranean Sea in the hinterlands of southern France, but the view was magnificent regardless.
I saw the actual colours of autumn, but without the sea of humans as I was accustomed to back home. I was wearing the one pair of jeans that I own, which I rarely ever wear, but I didn’t give it much thought. I had a lot of fun hiking, although my fear of heights and being out of breath didn’t help. I was, however, really proud of myself because I was able to keep up with the group.
They asked me a lot of questions about India, and life in my country. In the few months that I have lived in France, I’ve come to realize that French people don’t really know a lot about India. I don’t blame them though; India is a highly complicated country, and sometimes even Indians are surprised by some aspects of it.
I was happy to answer all their questions. We talked about artificial intelligence and the effects it has on social media — with a heavy academic perspective. As someone who likes to call himself a researcher, I liked this conversation, since it was more stimulating than the same old debates on AI that people have, and hence was a huge sigh of relief. The ironic juxtaposition of a conversation on AI, while we were hiking in absolute greenery with no signs of technology, was not lost on me. When I brought that up, we had a nice chuckle.
It was getting darker as we started our descent, and while normally I would get anxious if I am not indoors as the sun sets, for some reason, I was doing well.
We all went back to Steven’s house and continued chatting away, them drinking whiskey and me, apple juice. They all had very distinct, unique, and interesting lives. One of them was a rock-climbing instructor who lived in a van! It was really refreshing to hear their points of view on things I considered mundane.
As night fell, we decided to go have burgers, and I’m not lying when I say I have never been so full after eating a burger, ever, in my life — halfway through, I was losing my breath! We also had huge cookies, which were so good but so big that I couldn’t even think of eating them there. I just packed mine to take back with me.
As we all started getting sleepy, we stopped talking and started watching random videos. Steven’s friends (and now mine), left at around half-past midnight. I don’t know if it was the fatigue or the warmth (both of the bed, and also the one that I had received from the people I had met), but I probably slept the best I had slept in a very long time.
The next morning, the sun was shy — it was a foggy autumn day. After freshening up, I drank a spicy-sugary infusion that Steven had prepared for me as a compensatory drink, since I don’t drink coffee and he didn’t have any tea.
We had conversations about philosophy, history (both Indian and French), culture, planets, the universe, existential crises, psychology, languages, and everything in-between. We then went to an artisanal store where he bought some Assam and Darjeeling tea based on my recommendation. He even gifted me a Ugandan dark chocolate bar because he had started his “dark-chocolate journey” with that specific one.
We explored the small village that he grew up in, and inevitably, the conversation shifted to a more sombre tone about the Second World War: his grandmother had witnessed the destruction of the village and all the bloodshed that accompanied it. I shared with him the Indian experience of the war. We bonded in sharing our histories because we talked about events that are not relatively well known — be it the Nazi invasion in southern France, or the Japanese invasion in eastern India.
We walked to the cemetery at the edge of the town where his ancestors are buried. The town itself was rebuilt after the Second World War because the destruction had virtually left nothing. But looking at it today, one wouldn’t be able to tell that. The village church still stood atop the hill, where the Nazis had camped and were killed by American soldiers.
It was difficult to imagine the sufferings of that time, since when I was there, there were no remnants of those sufferings. Life was calm and silent in this small village of less than a thousand inhabitants. There was peace in this silence. There were colourful flowers everywhere, swaying with the autumn winds. Many of those flowers had been plucked and kept meticulously on the graves in the cemetery, since All Saints’ Day had just ended. We plucked some olives directly from the trees outside the cemetery and ate them. I had no track of time.
We then went to his mother’s house, who had graciously made salmon and rice for me. His mother is a huge Indophile: she has visited India many times and told me she would love to do it again. She had even visited Indian cities the names of which I had never heard of! She made me promise that the next time I visited, I would teach her how to make daal, roti, and chai. I actually made them tea and they seemed to enjoy it.
While eating the lunch she made I couldn’t help but wonder, these people have no reason to be this kind to me — inviting me to stay at their place, showing me their cats, just being welcoming and only because I had attempted to learn their language!
It is by learning each others’ languages that we realize we are all inherently the same. It is easy to divide people, arguing “they” are not like “us” when we don’t know their language. When you learn a language, you have a whole new world open up to you that was unavailable before. I, a person who had until recently not even left his country of origin, was in the heart of the French countryside, practically “alone,” having a conversation with locals, in their own language. This simple realization was surreal, and it felt ecstatic!
After a while it was time to go, as I would’ve missed my train — but gladly so! — had it not been for glancing at the clock. We quickly went to Steven’s where I gathered my belongings, and he took me to the railway station. Then we parted ways, saying “Namaste” before leaving. It was a bittersweet moment. I almost didn’t want to go back to “reality” — to my assignments, to my obligations, to Marseille.
Back in Marseille, the weather was gloomy and unwelcoming — there was no sun, and the roads were wet. I helped an elderly woman get her luggage into and out of the Metro — after having received so much kindness, I guess I wanted to somehow pay it back. I got home, happy that I went to Montélimar for the weekend, thanked Steven, and pondered what I had just experienced: one of my best weekends yet in France. ♦
Piyush Mishra is a researcher/graduate student from Delhi, India, who currently lives in Marseille, France. Though he loves learning new languages, he is currently pursuing a master’s degree in bioinformatics, after having completed a bachelor’s in computer science engineering. You can check him out on Instagram (highdrogenparadoxide) and Twitter (peeyoushh).