By AA Patawaran
I’m a Manileño, with roots in Bicol and in Pampanga, and though I would never trade bouillabaisse for sinigang, as far back as I can remember, I’ve been trying to speak French.
At some point in my life the past few years, I gave up on this lifelong dream to be able to speak and write like Honoré de Balzac. I cannot pinpoint exactly when it struck me that my life would be so much better if I could speak French, as if English, my first love, was not enough or too complicated to master that, to this day, I’m still wooing it to be mine.
I’d like to think it was poetry. I had the notion that “Song: To Celia” was the English translation of the French poet Charles Baudelaire’s work and I was in too deep by the time I discovered the real author, English poet and playwright Ben Jonson. It was a happy mistake nonetheless and soon I was taking up French as a language elective in college and I was five levels into the course at Alliance Francaise, moving along with the French cultural office in Manila from its old address on Gil Puyat Avenue to its current building on Nicanor Garcia Street in Makati.
Ah, French! C’est l’amour. The sound of it is enough to make anyone fall in love as deeply, madly, hopelessly as Edith Piaf did with the French world champion boxer Marcel Cerdan. So I guess it wasn’t poetry. It was the language itself, the words and phrases and sentences that make it up, beginning with bonjour, which I learned to say as a young boy when, armed with my Britannica Seven-Language Dictionary, I resolved to learn to say hello in as many languages as possible–come va, guten morgen, hei, kon’nichiwa, nî hâo, hola…
Only it was French that stayed with me, over which I had gone mad enough to sleep with TV5 on in the hope that I could dream in French. How the language led me to love everything French had to do with, like Paris, the French countryside, the Riviera, Cole Porter’s “I Love Paris,” Victor Hugo and Les Miserables, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and his Le Petit Prince (which I read in French), Colette, the Suicides Bridge at the Parc des Buttes Chaumont, Surrealism, Coco Chanel and Hermès, Shakespeare & Co. on rue de la Boucherie just across Notre Dame de Paris, Tintin and his many adventures, and even Diana Vreeland for suggesting that to live a life of legend, “the first thing to do is to arrange to be born in Paris. After that, everything follows quite naturally.”
Sadly, to France, I am no more than an on-and-off fling and, when I do find myself in her company, I can only stay so briefly. The first time I was in Paris, I was welcomed with French arms wide open, which led the Catalan painter Juvenal Sanso, as he took me on a stroll down Paris streets in an entire afternoon, to conclude, “You must be a Frenchman in your previous life.” Ah, as opposed to the Italians who resented my presence in their midst, the French loved me.
I suspect that it was because, solo-traveling through their lovely streets, broken as my French was, I would try my best to speak in the tongue of André Breton, at least before it dawned on me that I could never speak French unless it was all that was left to speak. At Alliance Francaise, my teacher, stern and strict and sadistic, said that I must be willing to sound the fool, to look the fool, to be the fool if I wished to be fluent in the language of Bip the Clown, not the mime but the actor Marcel Marceau, but I was too shy in the presence of Filipino and other foreign classmates who would snicker if I tried too hard to pronounce my “Rs” as though expectorating. In France, though, back then, in those early visits, it was a different story. I was bold enough to buy a train ticket to Versailles with an amateurish, slightly too formal “Je voudrais acheter un billet…” That same teacher told me that my written French was the French Revolution in grammar. “But I forgive you,” she said. “You write like a poet.” This was 20 years before I would release Hai[Na]Ku, my poetry book, in which my poem “Why Haven’t I Learned French?” is included.
You might accuse me of treason and I consent, this being Buwan ng Wika, a monthlong celebration not only of Filipino, but of our 131 indigenous languages, based on an official count given to me by the National Commission on Culture and the Arts (NCCA). I confess that, in my quest to master English and to learn French, I might have taken my mother tongue for granted, not to say I don’t find it beautiful.
My mother was from Bicol, my father was from Pampanga, but my mother, born in Legaspi City, spent her entire adulthood in Manila, where she moved for high school to live in a dormitory run by French nuns and later to raise a family of her own. My father was born in Manila and maintained no ties with Pampanga or anything Kapampangan, unlike my mother and her family, who brought their language, culture, and food to Manila.
The identity of the Filipino today is of a person asking what is his identity. —Nick Joaquin
That is why I can understand Bicolano completely, specifically Bikol Naga, though I speak only very little. In college, while queuing up for a hamburger, I heard the Ilonggos among the student crew bantering with each other in their native tongue and I resolved to speak in mine, practicing with my aunts and uncles. I also planned a trip to Legaspi City via Philippine National Railways, going as far as mapping out my route, but to this day, I’ve never been, except through the airport in transit to a weekend in Sorsogon with Sen. Chiz Escudero and his wife Heart Evangelista. So I’ve been to my mother’s birthplace, but not on the agenda of embracing the culture, not yet. I should pick up where I left off and spend a week or two in Bicol. It takes me no longer than that to start saying Merci instead of thank you and to start getting the gist of the conversations I eavesdrop on while at the terasse of bars and bistros in France, whether in Paris or in Cannes or in Toulouse.
Sometimes, if only so we Filipinos could be more easily united, I wish we didn’t have so many languages in the Philippines, just as there is only French in France, though there are certain regional dialects and languages, such as Alsatian, Breton, Langue d’Oïl, and Occitan, each of which, like the other German dialects and Celtic and Gallo-Romance languages, is spoken by no more than two percent of the population.
Enough of wishes. That’s like saying I wish I were born in France, which I do, if I must be honest. But then, if I were born in Paris, I sure would not be me, a Filipino in love with the French, every encounter with anything French like a tender kiss on my virgin skin.
But then there is the rest of who I am, who loves adobo with steamed white rice or kare kare with bagoong. Seriously, I don’t think I can be happy in France without my everyday Filipino comfort food.
I can write in Tagalog if I put my mind to it, drawing inspiration from old Tagalog movies that I loved, except who speaks like Rogelio de la Rosa anymore? I’m such a purist and find it difficult to write as I speak, with so much English thrown into every sentence.
But I’m getting better at it, in appreciating what makes us uniquely who we are. I appreciate it now that we have movies in Kapampangan or Ilonggo or Ilokano. I love it now that Komisyon ng Wikang Filipino, with the NCCA and Sen. Loren Legarda, is recognizing each of our wealth of 131 languages with a 10-foot-tall bamboo-inspired sculpture by Junyee Lee that has so far been installed in six public locations like town plazas around the Philippines, the first being in Antique in honor of Kiniray-a and the latest in Bukidnon in honor of Binukid.
Oh there is so much to do to get us all together as Filipinos, but first I think we have to embrace our diversity, to accept the fact that ours is a people originally gathered from scattered tribes on so many islands on the Pacific, with many tongues and cultural differences as well as rivers and lakes and seas and mountains between us. Maybe that makes us different from the French or the Americans or the Japanese, but that’s us.
Lately, if rather belatedly, I am beginning to see more of us to love. Mais oui, c’est vrai. The truth is this is me, and more and more I am loving me, my French fetish and my eye out there on the world, from Addis Ababa to Zagreb, included.
The author is also on Twitter and Instagram as @aapatawaran and Facebook as Arnel Patawaran.