How shows like “Lupin” and “Call My Agent!” have inspired me to pursue French fluency.
Growing up with a francophile mother, French has always been part of my life. My special stuffed animal was Babar the elephant, and weekends were spent singing the translated version of “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” with a group of children who were far more multilingual than me. In college, I spent a year studying in Paris, living with a host family and their three-legged dog, Colonel Moutard. Still, like many adults who spent their school years learning a foreign language, my opportunities to speak it dwindled after graduation, and so did my confidence.
When the pandemic canceled all my plans, I became committed to a different pastime: Television. Forced to abandon any sense of an extracurricular agenda (something pre-pandemic me would find unfathomable) and unable to tolerate the awkwardness of “virtual events,” TV became the reliable accompaniment to every evening. Where before I consumed a few select favorite shows, now I was ready for anything. It could be a contrived dating show (Love Is Blind), a suspenseful teen drama (Outer Banks), or a documentary about the pitfalls of child stardom (Showbiz Kids). Rest assured I watched the critics’ favorites too (Ramy, PEN15). Then I found the French shows.
In January of 2020, Netflix announced the opening of a new Paris office, along with plans to nearly double its French language productions as part of a broader international expansion. I’d already been enraptured by The Hook-Up Plan, the 2019 buddy comedy about three girlfriends who hire an escort to cheer up a heartbroken member of their group. (In addition to its wry humor and lovable characters, the show included my favorite animal, a guinea pig—like Fleabag before it—this one named Moules-Frites.) In August, Netflix released a special pandemic episode, showing how each character responded to the panic during Paris’s lockdown.
Then came Lupin, the hit show that debuted last month starring Omar Sy as a modern version of Arsène Lupin, “gentleman thief,” France’s equivalent to Sherlock Holmes. It was so good—in turns gripping and charming—that my boyfriend made us ration it, only one episode a night. We watched with subtitles, but I started noticing new words, like piéger (to trap), and pendu (hanged). Suddenly my TV watching seemed a bit more active—a rare feeling in quarantine—and I didn’t want to let go when the episodes ended.
As is perhaps fitting with French, my re-entry began with a pastry. I ordered a marzipan-filled Galette des Rois from the catering company Pistache NYC. On the phone for the delivery, I was asked if I spoke French. I said, “Oui, mais…” The man on the other end swiftly switched to English: “If my English is better than your French, we’ll stick to that!” I laughed and agreed. When the cake arrived in a car, the driver—knowing his cargo was a specifically French thing—also asked if I spoke French. I said, “Un peu, mais pas souvent…” I was tired of making excuses, of standing on the edge of the language without ever diving into fluency.
I decided to sign up for weekly French lessons through Coucou, an organization that used to operate on New York’s Lower East Side but has since expanded its reach now that classes are held on Zoom. I ordered the workbook and the exercise book, and felt so excited I thought I might cry. After months of making no concrete plans, the idea of gathering with new people for an intellectual activity seemed revolutionary.
I logged onto the first Zoom of the eight-class session not knowing what to expect. There were four other people on it, one in L.A., one in Dallas, and two in New York. The instructor, Pierre, had us all introduce ourselves and explain why we’d chosen to study French. I said I was newly inspired by Lupin—another woman in the class said she’d experienced the same thing. (Of course, this type of cinematic motivation is nothing new—it’s just more streamable than ever. When I studied in Paris, my 15-year-old host sister, Celeste, had the best English fluency in the family because of the attention she paid to shows like Gossip Girl.)
I asked Pierre whether the French had adopted Zoom as a verb yet; I was excited to use it if so. He said no, English is more flexible than French when it comes to turning nouns into verbs. The two-hour lesson then progressed much like those in high school; we took turns filling in blanks and completing translations. But unlike the ubiquitous boredom of 10th grade, I felt a rush of eagerness to understand and memorize every word. At a time when my mobility is limited, it’s energizing to expand my world by a Zoom room of strangers, and to imagine that, eventually, I will more easily make my way through Morocco and Martinique.
Now I’m watching season two of Call My Agent!, the show about a Paris talent agency and its agents’ (and their actors’) personal and professional travails. I’m reminded of slang and swear words I wouldn’t pick up in any class, while also hearing the most common verbs conjugated over and over. I have a renewed appreciation for simple striped shirts and body language (pursed lips can replace entire paragraphs). I go to sleep thinking about French sentences, and sometimes I speak them in my dreams.