I used to be fluent in French. After studying it at school and living abroad, I was able to translate in real time, write in verse, even dream in this beautiful language. But not long after graduation, I moved to Venezuela, where I lived for several years and spoke mostly Spanish, and the beautiful French words I had known began to fall away.
The day I knew they were gone for good, I was in an airport in Peru. My mother had seen a Belgian man desperately trying to communicate with one of the Spanish-speaking airline officials, and she brought me to them to help. But the neural aperture that allowed access to French was so small that all I could do was contribute to the frantic back-and-forth pantomime going on between them, disheartened by my inarticulateness and by the loss of the language I had loved.
Twenty years’ worth of words have accumulated since then, burying the French ones even deeper in their gray-matter grave in the same the way all old loves get left behind. I never think in French anymore, I would be embarrassed to attempt a conversation. But over the past few weeks, I’ve been looking through my old dictionaries and grammar guides in preparation for an upcoming trip to Paris. How could I have forgotten how to conjugate the verb, connaitre, which means to be familiar with?
Then this morning, out of the gray, I remembered—in French—my favorite poem by Guillaume Apollinaire, “Le Pont Mirabeau,” which addresses the fatality of passing time and the agony of bygone love. Neither will return, he says. They flow like water beneath the bridge upon which we stand.
But perhaps they can, the way the poem returned to me: unearthed from beneath strata of gathered history, a small relic of something forgotten. A memory, a reminder. These are the retrievable losses that can lead us—with our violent hopes—forward.
Le Pont Mirabeau