I walked home from school slowly in heat that I didn’t feel. My thumbs tucked into the straps of my backpack and my feet sweating in my leather shoes, I knew only of the voice in my head.
It was Sir Ian McKellen who was walking me home. Though he doesn’t like microphones, though he spoke from California and last Friday, his voice was now. Is now. Was then. Exists. His voice seeped into me through my gut and elbow and every inhale. He never stammered— he even said “excuse me” for misspeaking something I didn’t know was misspoken.
Sir Ian McKellen and I crossed my everyday streets, swirled my normal rotundas, drifted toward my usual shadows. Sir Ian McKellen followed the line for Bus 3 in Aix-en-Provence on my last day of school. And Sir Ian McKellen told me everything all at once, because Sir Ian McKellen looked Marc Maron’s voice in the eye and said, “Here’s some Shakespeare.” I arrived in my apartment building, ducked out of the sunshine, and stepped into a dark, cool, hallway. As Sir Ian McKellen filled up his knightly lungs, I paused.
French fluency. That’s what we came here for. I’ve spent the past few days searching my conversations, my dreams, and my intellect for stains of Mediterranean blue, linen white, and rosé. How close am I? How much faster must I be? Can I fool this waitress? Did I hear that right? I congratulate myself for a faultless exchange in the boulagerie, then frown at an old news clip on YouTube. I follow long discussions, then fail to eavesdrop on the table over. French is a lover I can claim for a night or an afternoon, but is not truly mine.
In a French hallway, in a French shadow, on a French afternoon, Sir Ian McKellen, speaking english, gave me the exact same sensation. Shakespeare’s words poured into my ear and my mind lit up with reordered phrases and key ideas and gists and vague awareness. I pushed ahead to as not think too hard and fall behind. I struggled to keep my eyes off of my stumbling feet as the floor moved fast. When Sir Ian McKellen paused, I touched the invisible noise of understanding and caught my breath. When he began again, I smiled and took off jogging.
In French, to speak “fluently” is translated as “couramment.” Now I see why “courir” (to run) is imbedded inside. I’m checking my pulse, keeping my pace, and watching the clock to see just how close I am to perfect.
In english, Sir Ian McKellen showed me that fluency isn’t a threshold*. He showed me that fluency is a mental fitness and a continual state of discomfort. That I have many strides yet to run.
How good am I at French, you ask?
“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
*Also because during this entire blog, I’ve been writing “fluentness” instead of fluency… So there’s that.