“French boils down to two things,” says B., as he adjusts the nozzle of the gas pump into my car, and waits. This is the time when we have our brief but sweet chats. We talk about many things but mostly about language because B.’s training is in Romance languages, and he has worked for some years in Europe before settling in Boston. An affable, gracious sort of person, he always has something interesting to say about languages, all languages. Sometimes our conversation digresses and a small line of cars begins to coalesce behind us.
B. is from the former Soviet Union–Armenia, to be exact–where foreign language instruction, though not available to all, was solid, tainted as it was (and still is) with the imperial overtones. There is also a long and illustrious translation tradition in Armenian letters, all the way from Shakespeare to Jack London, Faulkner, and Hemingway although the Armenian renditions have been sometimes by way of Russian and French.
B. speaks French without even the hint of an accent–which boggles the mind considering how “closed” the Soviet Union was to foreign penetration and influence. He may be pumping gas for a living, but his element is language. He is dexterous in his handiwork, and returns to the important subject as fast as the cars that whiz down the street in front of us.
“Etre, avoir.” He continues in Armenian, our common ancestral language . “You need to understand these two verbs, and you are all set to go!” Then he explains that etre is to be and avoir is to have.
I wish it were that simple, I want to tell him, not only achieving fluency in conversational and written French, but in life–living it meaningfully and with consequence. Instead, I pay and leave. Next car.
To be and to have–they slip through your lips the second they see the light of speech.