"Ou est la bibliotheque?" was one of the first sentences of French I learned. It and other phrases came from dialogues in my high school French textbooks. You had to memorize the most peculiar conversations, and I am left now with phrases like that one, "Where's the library?" and at lunchtime I can ask "Avez-vous des saucisses?" or "Do you have hot dogs?" with aplomb.
We had to call the teacher Madame. She looked like the wife in the TV commercial who always buys the right household cleaner to make her counters sparkle and shine.
Her hair was pulled back in a bright, tight blond bun, and she wore crisp shirtwaists and dark high heels. She had a large, rich-looking red mouth that we had to watch closely, as we tried to master the perils of French pronunciation. Rounding the lips. Letting sounds resonate in the nose. Sharpening the sound of our l's and r's and remembering to drop our h's.
The sound French makes is soft and close, musical and quick with feeling, up and down an impossible scale that mirrors the emotional highs and lows of being 15. It is a girl's language, capable of expressing a girl's ridiculous, understandable dreams.
One of the dreams is about leaving home. When you love your parents but are certain you are suffering under their thumb, the geography beyond your door is endowed with unnatural glamor. Everything beyond your front door is as fantastic as Paris. And when you're grown, you shall go there.
But time creeps in high school. You won't see Paris for a hundred years. So if you get a chance to taste the glamor early, your heart pounds. You wheedle your parents into giving permission, you hold bake sales, wash cars, work nights at the mall, set aside every birthday gift of money from your grandmother.
This was the chance the kids of Montoursville, Pa., were going to have. To see where Toulouse-Lautrec painted, and Simone de Beauvoir wrote, and Coco Chanel designed her simple suits, where wars and operas unfolded. And they were going to try to use the language that had been drummed into their heads in a classroom a world away to order a meal in one of those pretty little sidewalk cafes.
There would also be stops off the official itinerary, stops that would give their parents the sweats. They would stay up late. Sneak into a disco and dance with a drop-dead-gorgeous French boy who made them forget for a moment their date to the prom last spring. Sneak a sip of French wine, and, when the sun rose again, buy a bottle of perfume to take home to Mom.
And when they returned to Montoursville, they would feel themselves changed in small and unimaginable ways. They would know a little about Cezanne, Flaubert, Vichy and why nobody can make a sauce as a French cook can. They would know a little more about themselves, about being on their own. And when they shared memories in their graduation yearbook, the scribbles would contain funny, secret references to this trip that they would remember the rest of their lives.
People are praying in churches today for those killed when Flight 800 to Paris exploded just outside New York. My own prayers are particularly for those kids, who never got the chance to try out their classroom dialogues on real French people, who never got the chance to see the city they knew only as scenery for movies such as Gigi and French Kiss.
I have never been to Paris. But I remember more of French than the words for library and hot dog. Mostly I remember what it was like to dream, at 15, of what the future would bring. Love and work. Hurt and joy. Friendships and rivalries and marriages, a lifetime to turn wishes to choices. A lifetime the kids of Montoursville will never see. C'est a vous fendre l'ame, is the way the French put it: It breaks your heart.