I started French class again last night, because as my friend Herbie said, with four days to go to the wedding why not pick up an extracurricular? I’m in section 204, which feels worlds away from where I started almost two years ago in 103; being surrounded exclusively by the language on a daily basis for eight weeks this spring didn’t hurt, either. My comprehension in hearing it and confidence in speaking are leaps and bounds above where I expected them to be, and I’m really proud of myself. Two years ago I decided I wanted to become fluent in French, and I’m on my way there.
Last night as we were waiting for Rachel, our teacher, to arrive, an older gentleman in his late 60s, new to the class, and I struck up conversation. “Je m’appelle John,” he said. Oh, I thought, That’s nice. He has the same name as my dad. “Je suis architecte.” Well that’s a coincidence, he even has the same occupation as my dad.
I told John as much, more preoccupied with the fact that I was rattling off in French without having to stop and think of the words than anything else.
“Vous avez le même prénom et profession de mon père,” I said.
“What was your father’s last name?” John asked.
I told him, and his face froze. He repeated it, searching, I thought, his recollection for any sort of chance encounters with a fellow Philadelphia architect over the course of their careers. Philadelphia is an extremely small world, one that shrinks even smaller when you add in a specific niche profession. It’s likely their paths had crossed.
“John Godfrey?” he repeated again, this time with a rise of disbelief in his voice.
It turns out, this new student in my French class, this sweet white-haired architect named John not only knew my father, but had been very good friends with my father in the 70s.
Suddenly all my French vocabulary failed me.
He asked about my brother Eric, who was just a kid back then, he asked about my brother’s wonderfully kind mother Eileen –a woman so gentle and generous it defies logic, so kind that this relative stranger in my French class had to tell me how he remembered her as being incredibly nice, and this was 40 years ago. French Class John knew my father. He knew my father’s sculpture at the firehouse on Market Street, they knew all the same old architects, they lived on the same tiny street in Queen Village. He knew my dad’s old Saab, and he told me how it had taken oil and gas in the same tank to run.
“We were like this,” he said, making the universal symbol for close, twisting his first two fingers together.
Suddenly all my English vocabulary failed me, as well.
I called my brother immediately after class on the walk home, and his reaction was just like French Class John’s had been. My brother told me how one night, when he was eight, his parents and John and his wife had gone out to dinner, leaving Eric alone at French Class John’s apartment near Rittenhouse Square. But it was okay, he said, because they had a small color television, and he was glued to it all night.