The foreign-language section of my memory is more jumbled than usual this spring. It's always been something of a junk drawer, where all the odd remnants of my past linguistic efforts have accumulated.
Like so many drawers in my house, this one makes me regret I didn't keep it organized all along.
I'm about to teach a summer writing workshop in France, for the second time, and this time I vowed I'd be ready. This meant signing up for remedial French in a community education program this winter. Just how remedial, I didn't know.
At first, every sentence I tried to form in French came out in Spanish, the language I started learning in Mexico 40 years ago and am still working on. (I decided long ago that I'd never understand Spanish subjunctive, so I've concentrated on accent and vocabulary, but I cling proudly to those.)
To my dismay, the more French I studied, the more my hard-won Spanish faded. Verb endings went first, then whole verbs, then nouns. For many weeks, all the little words in Spanish - and, in, from, with, above, below, etc. - lingered, like forlorn little children whose big brothers and sisters are off at summer camp.
Then they too were nudged into the distance. But not by the French I was learning.
No, the little words that sprang most easily to mind were suddenly German. I'd studied that language in high school and had used it heavily as an exchange student. Apparently it was my foreign-language bedrock.
It had been more than a decade since I'd needed to use German on a trip, but now it had been prodded awake by my rummaging in the language drawer. Either that, or it rose to the challenge of a traditional enemy and began refighting the Franco-Prussian War.
None of this has exactly advanced my own cause. But now reinforcements have ridden in, from most unexpected source: My younger self - the 19-year-old college girl who took first-year French at the U of M and had the amazing wisdom to annotate all the readings.
A somewhat older self saved her books, and a much older self was too nostalgic about life as a Golden Gopher to throw them out. Every time I tried to, I rationalized that they might come in handy someday.
It turns out that all the selves were right: Someday, it seems, is now.
So my bedtime reading this month is a French memoir that I last opened in 1962. I have no memory of numbering every word I didn't know and listing their definitions in the margins, but there they are - translations of 10 or 12 French words per page, all in my own once-tidy handwriting.
Thanks to the good sense of the college kid I was, I can actually read this book. Sometimes, when someone in it tells a funny story, I even get the joke.
I'm beginning to believe that when I get back to Brittany this summer, I may be able to say more than "I would like a crepe, please.'' Who knows? I might even be able to discuss an idea or two.
I just wish that smart college kid had done the annotation thing with Spanish. After all this, die Sprache is going to need some major rehab.