Carnet de Voyage: Learning Streak

Carnet de Voyage: Learning Streak

Travel notes from the real France. Carnet de Voyage is a weekly personal travel story in France sent in by readers. If you’d like to write a story for Carnet de Voyage, head here for details on how to submit.

I was never adept at learning a new language. Eventually, I adopted a convenient position that I would never NEED another language. It was the 1970s and English seemed to be ever more “universal”. Fast forward several decades and, like most of the world, a pernicious new virus meant we were all to stay at home.

At my now advanced age of 62, I had been humbled by many worse things than trouble learning a language. Through those ensuing years, two things happened. I fell in love with France and believed there was a certain ugly arrogance in expecting everyone to speak English. Additionally, I really wanted to experience persevering through something I struggled with. Through my own children, I had come to appreciate and celebrate accomplishments that required real work vs natural ability.

My younger sister had recently downloaded a language app for learning Spanish and remarked that it was “pretty fun”. As a house full of Covid refugees worked and played around me, I downloaded “Duolingo”. The app promised, “In just a few minutes a day, everyone can learn a new language”. These folks had clearly not been in my French class taught by a very southern, Madame Barringer.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained. I started. Bonjour. Salut. Un chat mange une orange. Day 77. Day 116. Wow. I guess I’m doing this. It became a habit. The way I started my day. After day 116, it would feel ridiculous to break my streak. Everyone has ten minutes, right? And so Duolingo became the thing I did with more consistency than brushing my teeth.

About a year into my language journey, I went to visit my elderly and confined mother in her assisted living facility. A devastating stroke had narrowed life to a room, a TV she could not actually hear and the calls and visits of her children and grandchildren. This for a woman that had traveled the world and earned the nickname, “Sacajawea” for leading hikes all over her beloved North Carolina mountains. Mom had considered herself a decent French student in her youth. As we spoke almost everyday, it could be a challenge to come up with fresh material. On my 365th day of Duolingo, I mentioned to mom my accomplishment. “Say something”. I scrounged for something to say and spouted something like, “Je vais à la boulangerie pour un croissant”. To which mom replied, “ Well, you’re not very good”. We both laughed hard.

In fact, I’m not very good. But remember, I was in this for the challenge; not a grade. This past summer almost three years into my language pursuit, I once again went to visit and look after my rapidly failing mom. With the help of my siblings we had sprung her from her facility and brought her to the beautiful mountains. She cried as she laid eyes on the majesty of the ridge and the mist settling into the valley. In turn, we all cried as well. Mom wanted to see “her mountains”, one last time. It was here that she passed away several days later, in the place and with the people she loved most. Mom had lived a beautiful life of service, love, learning, art and family.

We shared so many passions and interests and dispositions that we had become best friends. My grief was profound. My husband of 42 years and every bit a son to my mother, watched me sit and read, paint, read, paint. I had profound inertia. He said, “You need to do the things you wanted to do before your mom died. Plan a trip to France.” I stared at TripAdvisor for a few days. I normally love planning trips. Every restaurant, exhibit and detail. I just didn’t have the bandwidth. I came across a hotel review where a gentleman thanked his “travel advisor”, who had planned his entire journey. I had never heard of a travel advisor. Agent? Yes. Those mall shops with cruise brochures. I reached out to Sarah Ives, of CartologyTravel, with a general idea that I wanted to see Etretat; I wanted a trip of beauty, art and history. As a plein air painter, I wanted inspiration. With those loose directives and a couple of thoughtful conversations, Sarah planned a dream trip through Normandy, capped by a few days in Paris.

From the beautiful harbor area of Honfleur where Monet and Boudin lived and painted to time spent in Etretat, Rouen, Bayeaux, Deauville, Mont St Michele and Giverny, we had a trip that fulfilled every dream. Our third “passenger” was my mother, whom I felt with me every time I set out my paints, a hobby we had always shared. I hope she was also with me when I had lengthy discussions, in French, with various cabdrivers, concierges, shopkeepers and guides. I did often beseech “gens” to speak “plus lentement”, (more slowly), but all seemed to encourage rather than laugh at my stilted attempts.

Today, as I write, I’m on day 1,420 of practicing French at least ten minutes a day. My older sister is now on day 67. My younger sister just hit a 100 day streak! My 2023 summary from Duolingo says I’m in the top 1% of learners worldwide…for consistency and effort; not ability! I can’t say I’m fluent but I can say I’m proud of this accomplishment. Now I’m thinking of exploring Brittany. Next? The Loire Valley. Perhaps a few weeks just parked in a market town in Provence. Every new “France Today”, magazine issue ignites a new dream. J’aime La France! C’est mon pays préféré!

Read our other Carnet de Voyage entries here.

Lead photo credit : Etretat © shutterstock

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  • soap2day
    2024-05-06 06:24:46
    Your writing has a way of touching the hearts of your readers.


  • Quincy Kresler
    2024-05-02 08:26:58
    Quincy Kresler
    Linda - what a beautiful piece. I loved hearing about your mom’s legacy as she travels with you (after her passing). My parents inspired me to a life of travel and I will carry them with me too! As a heavy Duolingo user (but I’m only at 832 :) I smiled at your musings at all the joy that the casual learning of a language brings - to force us out of comfort and into new experiences.


  • Sarah Ives
    2024-05-01 08:46:11
    Sarah Ives
    What a beautiful testimony to motherhood, to love, to grief, to learning and to travel (and, of course, to France!) A perfect reminder to continue to try new things at any age and even to learn a new language. I hope you get the chance to enjoy all of wonderful places on your list in France and beyond. You've inspired me to download Duolingo and I enjoyed reading this very much!