As noted here previously, my French is what is known as "serviceable" — I can read the newspaper, order theater tickets and carry on a superficial social conversation, but generally speaking, when I address French people who understand English, they will immediately switch, and if they don't, they start speaking slowly and carefully. Even at my peak, I have never been quite fluent, with two notable exceptions.
The first was several years ago, when my husband, son and I were climbing the bell tower of Notre Dame cathedral. I have a terror of heights and would normally have declined this venture, but the beautiful sculpture and stonework on the tower drew me to closer examination.
When we reached the first observation platform, I gazed out on the gorgeous landscape and was torn between urges to faint and to throw up. I didn't want to ruin Bill and Ben's experience, so I held it together as well as I could, urging them to continue the climb without me and assuring them I would be fine and would meet them at the bottom. When they were gone, I minced gingerly back toward the stairs we had just climbed up, convinced that at any second, a gust of wind was going to blow me over the flimsy railing and send me hurtling to my death.
Two guards found me and, believing that I had lost my way, began directing me toward the staircase that would continue the ascent. In a panic that they would somehow make me climb another set of stairs, I let loose with a stream of verbiage that, translated, went something like this: "No! You don't understand! I'm terrified of heights. I came up with my family because I am stupid. I thought I could do it but I was wrong. I feel sick. If you make me go up I will pass out. I need to get down right away!"
They got it. One assured me that his wife had the same problem. They escorted me to an exit staircase and explained, still in rapid French, that I would exit near the back of the cathedral and could walk around to the front to meet my family. I followed their directions and collapsed on the lawn until Bill and Ben returned. Then, when I felt safe again, my ability to speak and understand French diminished once more.
Until last Monday, when we changed planes in Paris enroute from Prague to New York. As we entered the jetway, an Air France official approached Ben and asked him to step aside. Bill, who uses a cane, had already been ushered ahead with other special needs passengers, so I turned around and followed Ben and the woman back to the gate. The ensuing conversation, again in rapid French, went as follows:
Air France Officer (to me): Please continue boarding the plane.
Me: No. This is my son. What are you going to do to him?
AFO: Please keep moving. This is a routine check.
Me: I am going to stay and watch.
AFO: He is an adult; please move away.
ME: No, he's not. He's 17 years old. I am staying.
AFO: Oh. All right, you can stay.
At that point, a second Air France officer approached and ordered me to stop obstructing the search. The first officer explained to him that Ben was a minor and my son, and he apologized and allowed me to stand by while the first officer checked Ben's backpack and then gave us permission to continue boarding. As before, nobody breathed a word of English or slowed down for the American.
When I related our adventure to a friend, he observed, "It's like those stories about the 98-pound mother who moves the Volkswagen because her kid is trapped under it." I agreed. In my first graduate-level neuropsychology class, we learned that the saying that we only use half (or 10%, or whatever number you heard) of our brainpower is a myth, but experiences like this do suggest that we have resources that remain latent until circumstances push them out of us.