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Mon Dieu! I finally learned to speak French

Ever since high school, French has been my big white whale.

Years later, still feeling like the stereotypical American language dunce during trips to France, I decided to make peace with my nemesis.

Perhaps we could be pals, but the friendship had been slow in coming.

A few years ago I enrolled in a local language school, but the once-a-week, 90-minute classes weren’t enough, so I decided to go the full-immersion route.

After a Google search that turned up good reviews for Lyon-Bleu International in France’s third largest city, I contacted LBI and asked for a week-long class and home stay.

I was pleasantly surprised by the cost: about $1,100 for five full days of morning classes and afternoon private instruction, plus room and board with a host family. The school handled all the arrangements.

I arrived in Lyon in east-central France a few days before classes started and immediately fell in love with this beautiful, manageable city.

Its center lies between the Rhône river on the east and the Saône river on the west. Steep hills flank two sides of the city, and the basilica of Notre-Dame to the west overlooks the Saône.

To the north, the Croix-Rousse quarter, once the center of Lyon’s silk-making industry, is now a comfortable, lively neighborhood with a mix of artists, young families, millennial professionals and working class.

Bruno, my affable fiftysomething host, picked me up and we drove up the hill to the Croix-Rousse apartment I would share with his family and where I would live the life of a student in my tiny, hot room that overlooked a dark alley.

On Monday morning, I headed off for the 20-minute walk to Lyon-Bleu, carrying my day pack filled with notebooks and feeling much as I did the first day of fifth grade at a new school.

After an evaluation of my skill level, the school placed me in an intermediate class with seven or eight other students who hailed from Germany, Switzerland, Korea, Brazil, Japan and Taiwan.

Elsa, our teacher, was in her mid-30s, energetic and very organized. Our French-only classes moved at a brisk pace.

In high school, I never would have put the words “fun” and “French” together, but Elsa’s teaching skill, encouragement and good humor made it so.

In one session, she created an Agatha Christie-type scenario, describing a middle-of-the-night murder. We were instructed to team up with a classmate and develop a convincing alibi.

One “suspect” from each pair would then be interrogated by the “police” (classmates) while the other suspect in the pair waited outside the classroom.

After the first round of interrogation, the partner was brought in for questioning. Ideally, the stories, which were to have specifics on whereabouts and activities, would match.

For our “final” at the end of the week, every class in the school was required to write a 10-minute skit to be performed for the student body. My class came up with a farcical “American Idol”-type talent show.

No scripts were allowed; we had to memorize our lines. I worked on mine as I hiked home after classes. As an old guy mumbling in French, I drew a few concerned stares.

When the week ended, I was exhilarated. I had remembered all my skit lines, survived the immersion and felt a part of this beautiful city.

Most of all, I had fallen in love a second time — with the language.

An excellent school and teacher, a charming French host and the satisfaction of being able to order a draft beer like a local made all the difference.

Now, I thought as I savored my Kronenbourg 1664 brew and picked up bits of nearby conversation, I had truly become a citizen of the world.

Departure Points, a new monthly column, explores the ways in which traveling changes us, whether it’s a lesson learned or a truth uncovered. You may submit a first-person essay of 700 words or fewer to travel@latimes.com with “Departure Points” in the subject line. Please include your first and last names and your contact information for editorial consideration.

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