My French Brain
Apparemment, il y a en moi une double francaise qui sort seulement quand en France. Elle pense en francais, elle parle couramment en francais, et elle sait toutes sortes de choses que mon personnage americain ignore totalement. Oh! Sorry! Right! English, please….
I’ve become aware of this strange French incarnation of myself. She has suddenly appeared from I don’t know where. She speaks French better than I ever thought I could. She has French reflexes. She even cooks in French. My American self hates to cook! But it’s mealtime, and I have a few things in the fridge, and in no time at all a lovely French meal appears on the table. I’ve never before been able to speak Parisian French with the perfect cadence, intonation, facial expressions, and reflexes, that persuade Parisians absolutely to treat me as one of their own. When I lived in France those many years ago, my life took place in provincial cities.
It’s like being in France for the first time all over again. Back then, I said things, and people responded, and I had no idea what they’d said, or what to do next. But now, I understand it all, perfectly, and the right responses just fly from my mouth — even humorous comments that give people a chuckle. But then I’m not sure where they came from. From me??? Who IS this other-cultured individual inhabiting me? Some strange transformation has been going on in my brain between last year’s Parisian visit and this year’s. I’ve morphed from a Provincial into a Parisian – something I’ve never been before.
Many, many years ago, when studying how to lead personal development seminars, I learned about something I’ve not heard of elsewhere. It was called the “Ziegarnik Effect.” Apparently it was named for a Russian or Polish psychologist who had determined experimentally that when a person starts working on a solution and then leaves it in midstream, the brain somehow just keeps perking along working out the puzzle until the person mentally returns to finish it.
It’s been a year and a half since we last left Paris in May 2014. And apparently my brain has been working double time to process the many observations and experiences I had during that month in Paris. This has been true for Nancy as well. This year, her French is at least 500% better than it was the last time we were here. Her pronunciation is clearly understandable, so that people respond in French, rather than announcing they can speak English. She’s processing conversations and understanding most of what people are saying in rapid-fire Parisian French. And she’s thinking mostly in French. Both of us are conversing with each other quite effortlessly and unintentionally in French. It’s quite amazing.
I haven’t thought about the “Ziegarnik Effect” for a very long time. But clearly that’s what has happened to us, and it’s powerful. How can we harness this amazing capacity of our brains to learn and process while we are attending to other stuff? We couldn’t have experienced the same year-to- year improvements in our skills if we had worked at it, taken lessons, studied, practiced, spent hours. We didn’t do any of that, and yet the results are hard to believe. We left Paris before the process was complete. We intended to come back. We went about our American lives. And now we’re reaping the benefits of our brains continuing to process and learn from last year’s experiences.
I’ve thought a lot during this trip of the various purposes that travel can serve. Since we are back in the same beloved city for the third year in a row, our desires and our needs have continued to change with each return visit. The first year, we thirsted to experience different places that we hadn’t seen for a long time. Last year, we were starting to focus more on doing things we would do if we lived in Paris for at least part of each year – things like attending church, going to meetings, participating in different activities. This year, our approach has changed even further. Being here sparked different conversations between us than we would have at home, and we attended fully to these, and enjoyed them. They didn’t necessarily involve going anywhere outside the apartment. We became acquainted with a couple of merchants in our neighborhood, establishing a pattern of friendly greeting and jesting. We explored shopping venues, and explored small neighborhood areas on foot to deepen our knowledge of them. We cooked more (what a surprise!). We became even more conversant with the relationship of our neighborhood to different parts of Paris and expanded the areas of Paris that have started to feel familiar and comfortable, readily accessible by bus. We were able to make a couple of contacts with individuals who we hope will, over time become new friends in a deeper sense – people we will keep up with and with whom we can discuss topics mutually important to us. Our initial conversations have indicated that this outcome is very possible. We reinforced our enjoyment and purposeful attention to an activity that seems uniquely rich in Paris, attending live concerts in ancient music, choral music, and jazz.
We discovered and made it a point to attend a new French musical (“Gospel Sur La Colline”) purportedly written about life in an African American community in Louisiana. We wondered how the Europeans would portray African-Americans, whom they generally find fascinating. During the show, however, we didn’t recognize much that seemed American. The songs written by the French producers were very polished and European in their sound, with no reference to the rhythms and tonalities of African-American music. The accents of most of the francophone actors were hard to understand. The rhythms of motion and dance were polished and choreographed – again very European. The mostly French audience LOVED the show. They really got into the music and the rhythm and the clapping, and gave several thunderous standing ovations at the end. We were puzzled, until the francophone African friend with whom we had attended the play told us that the actors as well as the music and choreography were Antillean – the work of francophone Creoles from the Caribbean. Oh! Apparently the Antilleans are quite European in their way of living – and of course, from a European standpoint, since they are from the Western Hemisphere, not so far from the US they seem like suitable stand-ins for African Americans. So the switch worked reasonably well for the French audience, but not so much for us.
Clearly, our agenda, like our perspective, has changed for each of these three succeeding visits to Paris. When I first came to France right after graduating from college, I had never been further west than New York City. Travel at that age opened up my experience dramatically, providing the contrasts necessary for gaining perspective on my life and myself. Traveling can also be a way of proving oneself as we meet challenges at all levels. These trips have played that role, even though we have come back repeatedly to the same place – challenging us physically, mentally, and emotionally. Travel can be entertainment – the opportunity to be a spectator on the sights and sounds of different places across the world. Obviously, that is not so much what we are seeking in these trips. In addition, travel can provide the opportunity to encounter and build understanding for the varieties of human experience. Certainly, the two new potential friends we met on this trip created the basis for this benefit of traveling. One is a French wife, mother of two twenty-something sons just launching into the world, a former biologist who had to compromise on a career in computers because of shifting job opportunities. She is now semi-retired and in business for herself as a flower arranger. The other is a dynamic young woman originally from the Congo, who had the advantages of a European convent and university education and is now a young careerist in international banking – someone in her early thirties who has a vision of how people like her can give back to her native country to help others escape from the cycle of consistent poverty and corruption. She is one of those young people who gives us hope for the continued evolution of the world toward peaceful opportunities for people from everywhere.
Finally, I find that traveling often provides me with the opportunity to experiment with living habits that I really like but have not yet developed in my everyday life. There are several life changes I want to take back with me from this trip. Certainly, I need to translate into my American life my newly found realization that preparing delicious, informal, light meals using the French template can be very fast and easy. I also want to find ways to spend part of every day relaxing and doing something just for the enjoyment of it – and to continue the spontaneous decision making process each day to do something fun. I’ve thought that before, and haven’t followed through. Can I do it this time? We’ll see. Also, during this trip, I’ve been aware of the blessing of enjoying simple everyday pleasures with the person I most love. I want to carry on with this heightened awareness of a tremendous gift.
Is that enough? I think so. How can I use the Ziegarnik Effect to help it happen?
Over a lifetime, I have indeed improved my ability to carry over insights and behaviors I like from one setting to another. I envision that I will be able to continue enjoying these habits as beloved souvenirs from a memorable stay in Paris in 2015.