kristen lawrenceBy Kristen Lawrence — Pediatric Alliance, Northland Division


A quarter of a century has passed since I sat in a classroom trying 
to learn French.  However, the flame of interest in learning the 
language was never really extinguished.  Now, with the use of my 
trusty iPhone, I am a devotee to podcasts and language learning apps.  Little did I know that a short time later I would have an opportunity 
to put those tools into practice.

I was introduced to Paris on a lovely summer day, taking in the grand architecture and graceful, flying buttresses of Notre Dame Cathedral.  The picturesque setting 
of the cathedral next to the River Seine with its tailored gardens and 
tree-lined promenade of park benches beckoned me, and my significant 
other, for a respite.  Soaking in the beauty surrounding us, I was 
unaware that this was destined to be one of the most interesting, interactive, and random cultural experiences I’ve ever had.

notre dame

The sound of a young woman earnestly attempting to create a whole
 French sentence was met with an equal attempt by a native, elderly 
Frenchman assisting in broken English.  Much to my surprise, I could
 detect a Chinese accent surfacing from the woman’s efforts.  English
 was Susie’s second language, yet she was resolved to practice French.  With the patience of a caring grandfather, Monsieur Jacques was gently 
correcting and encouraging her.  I couldn’t help but smile as I
 listened.  And I couldn’t hold myself back, either.  I wanted a slice 
of this cultural pie.  So I did the one thing that I know to be a part 
of any experienced travel expert’s mantra:  I wove myself into the
 culture by interacting with the people.  Imagine the unlikely scene 
that day in Paris with three people of different backgrounds and 
cultures enthusiastically attempting to bridge countries and
 continents through language.

Lux Gardens Paris w Jacques and Yongjuan

Susie, whose Chinese given name is Yjuan, spoke English very well, 
and her patience and enthusiasm were tempered with a touch of caution.  Jacques, however, was a retired man, and had all the time in the
 world to meander through Parisian streets and lounge in its gardens. 
 Yet he seemed enthralled to spend his time with us as our honorary 
“professor” of linguistics.  With every attempt at English, his soft
blue eyes revealed his sincerity.  His version of a summer’s day
 attire included a dress shirt and khaki pants with a pinstriped blazer
 and casual summer necktie, affirming his dignified French gentleman 
status.  Monsieur Jacques was fully committed to his newfound 
“students”, and Susie and I were happy for the language aperitif.  
The gentleman graciously offered to lead us all on a leisurely walk
 through Parisian neighborhoods towards the famous Luxembourg Gardens.  Jacques expertly maneuvered and sashayed his way around the endless
 outdoor cafes lining the streets.  Rounding a corner, he quickly
 grabbed my arm and pointed.  Here is where my knowledge of specific
 French exclamations paid off as he proclaimed, “At–ten—see-ohn!!”
(Attention! Caution!)  Just in time for me to step around some French 


Undaunted, we strolled on towards the gardens.  Walking out of the
shaded, gray and concrete color scheme of Parisian streets, we could 
see a glorious view up ahead.  Bright sunlight streamed through the 
perfectly-proportioned trees, surrounding the pièce de résistence:  A 
glistening, circular reflecting pool enveloped by a pristine, rolling green lawn.  A few elegant palm trees provided exotic 
umbrellas of shade to its visitors.  Profusions of flowers showed off 
their rainbow of colors, while statuary of all sorts of whimsy played
 hide and seek.  Here was the refuge and oasis many were seeking from
 the inner trappings of the city.


Rejuvenated and refreshed, we 
continued our language foray where we left off.  We laughed and joked
 at our disarticulations and other grammatical mistakes, but through it
all we still felt our human connection.  I asked Jacques if he felt
 the disdain towards Americans that many French seemed to share at 
present.  He became very solemn, and looked at me with all the
 sincerity in the world.  His heart seemed to overflow as he expressed 
his overwhelming gratitude to America for liberating his country 
during the Second World War.  The shared ideals of freedom and 
liberty, along with their costs and sacrifices, were very personal and 
meant the world to him.

with jean in paris

As an aspiring social studies teacher, his
 words struck a deep chord of empathy within me.  I hope that some day
 my future students will benefit from his words and perspective. 
At that moment, though, I was the student.  This type of experience
 is just as valuable as gazing at treasured art in the world’s best 
museums.  Here in this vast and diverse international metropolis, a
 gray-haired, elderly French stranger was sharing years of wisdom and 
confiding personal thoughts.  I can only hope that he walked away
 with as big a smile in his heart as I had in mine.