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Speaking the languages of a lifetime

Parlez-vous francais? Me neither.

I took French for four years in high school. Miss Lavallee, the petite mademoiselle who tried to teach us, was indeed, of French heritage.

On her travels to France every summer, she added to her designer wardrobe, creating an elegance that opened the eyes of us gangly teenagers.

In her perfect Parisian accent, she extolled the food, and taught us all the beauty of French design. I developed a pretty good French accent, learned a smattering of phrases sufficient to sound a bit sophisticated, and retained no vocabulary. Years later, when I finally got to Paris, I gave the cab-driver the address in a flawless accent… and didn’t understand another word he said. I managed a long string of “merci, merci” with the fare.

As new languages go, French was my first, but I’ve come to understand that life is full of many new languages to learn. They are not all foreign and located in textbooks – they are the languages of our daily lives that enhance our understanding, enjoyment and fun. For example, I learned to speak Baseball about the same time I was struggling with lingua franca.

My best friend’s father took us to opening day at Fenway Park for a few years. I couldn’t absorb the crowds, the team, and the excitement, fast enough. But her dad patiently taught me how to keep the line score, and I quickly caught on about balks, bunts and the infield fly rule.

That first day, I learned that the ace on the mound, who usually threw high and tight, was tossing meatballs. One batter hit a Texas leaguer over the hot corner.

He was sent around the horn when the clean-up batter hit one on the screws for a stand-up double. It was fun, and I loved it. Still do.

My 12 years working for an airline engraved an indelible jargon into both my head and heart. We learned all the city codes and routes that American Airlines flew.

To this day, I still write 3-letter codes for LAX, DAL, ORD, and all other cities we served. Many were named for a person: SDF for Standiford Field (Louisville) and TYS for McGhee Tyson (Knoxville). They weren’t intuitive, but we learned to use them. We learned all the aircraft parts, and I still know my ailerons from my speed brakes.

Airlines are quasi-military organizations with established rules of command — the captain is the final word, just as on a ship. I still write the date military style and use the 24-hour clock in written communication. It’s now 2328 and I’m yawning.

In later life, I ran a few businesses in Fashion, or as it is called, “The Rag Business.” Buying trips to New York City meant keeping my ears keenly tuned to their vocabulary of purchasing terms, that translated into large amounts of money. “Over the water” is foreign-made; “on the water” means in-transit. Bandeau, decollette, bateau…so many designer terms took me back to Mademoiselle Lavallee’s classroom.

I learned to speak some Military when I met my first husband, a navy pilot. I was given a book, “Welcome Aboard,” a guide for the naval officer’s wife. The captain’s wife advised me, “It’s simple – memorize everything, then do it.” I got my calling cards printed, bought a small silver dish for the cards from visitors, and kept the house ready to “receive.” Sacre bleu!

The languages we use — the terminology, the tools and how-to’s — follow our interests. My years learning Design and Construction taught me about building. Along the way, I learned that biscuits aren’t edible and butt joints don’t have anything to do with ham.

And I had to dig deep to learn the language of Gardening. This late bloomer perennially struggles to retain the Latin flower names.

I’ve given up trying to grasp Computerese — there aren’t enough hours in the day. I am learning just enough to continue writing, and to keep from throwing this machine through a window.

I guess I’ll never get to some languages I wanted to master. I thought by now I’d be speaking Italian. I wanted to learn Auto Mechanics, Sailing and Car Racing. I only got as far as “Mangia!”, oil filter, below decks and a speeding ticket.

So much to learn. Too little time. C’est la vie.

Marcy O’Brien lives in Warren with her husband, Richard, and Finian, their placid Maine Coon cat. Marcy can be reached at Moby.32@hotmail.com

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