(and I just figured out why)
I have been living here in SW France for just over two months, and, as humans are so good at doing, I have figured a way to survive in an unknown habitat by falling into the safety of avoidance, or, in this case, without learning much French. Oh, I can greet people with the best of them, with a bonjour or a bonsoir. My departure is artful, my choices plentiful, with so many choices: à plus tard (see you later), à bientôt (see you soon), bonne journée (have a good day) au revoir, merci beaucoup, merci à vous, or just a simple merci. So many ways to say good-bye.
I can get to the bathroom, get the check at lunch, and get my point across to my banker by searching for words that made it into his vocabulary lessons in his high school French class. I have bought a bed and a cell phone with Google translate, and opened a bank account, gotten insurance and bought a car using my friend Stephanie.
My pronunciation has improved, too. After much practice, everyone understands me when I say “Je ne comprands pas” (I do not understand). Thanks to my friend Elaine, I am close to mastering the art of the dropped last letter, saying it without projecting it. Thanks to my friend Kate, I may have finally (well, almost) reprogramed my errant mind to pronounce “au” as “o” like in bow (and, in French, faux) rather than the “ah” sound I seemed to be so fond of.
This isn’t Paris, or Lyon, or even Toulouse, where there is an English speaking person in every shop and on every street corner. So it’s taken effort on my part to find those people who do, or are willing to admit that they do, speak English. But I have persevered, and now know which cashier to hit up at our local supermarket, the Intermarché, and which vendors I can easily communicate with (verbally and with sign/body language) at the Saturday market, and which occassions demand that I drag a French speaking friend along to translate for me.
And here is why I have gone to all this trouble. It’s not that I am afraid of looking stupid or feeling vulnerable. My fear is that, if I speak French to a French person, they will respond to me. In French! In long sentences, and even paragraphs, of run-together words pronounced with their lips pursed just so, which I will never be able to understand. Each time this has happened I feel like I’m hearing them speak underwater, with lots of static surrounding each sound coming from their mouth.
It all started 20 years ago at a Sunday market in L’isle-sur-la-Sorgue. Four days in to my first trip to France I finally worked up the nerve to use some French, beyond Bonjour and Au Revoir, by complimenting an artist on her display of water colors.
Me: “Tres jolie”, motioning toter displayed art. Her: 5 minutes of the previously noted distortion of sound, with me nodding and smiling, after which, having no idea what-so-ever of what she said, I turned and fled to the coziness of my limiting but secure English language.
I have found that those who do hav some English language do not use it freely. I usually start most conversations with a new encounter with “Pardon, parlez-vous anglais?” and more often than not, someone who responds with a “Non” can actually converse in English quite well. Why do they say non? Most likely because they don’t know how much English is going to be expected of them- a few numbers, a dissertation on Balzac, or something in between. Once we get going, it’s usually evident that they have more than enough for a simple conversation. They have more English than I have French.
My lack of language has proven good fodder for the irreverent French sense of irony, too. Taking delivery of my car, the sales manager went through, in French, introducing me to all of the features of the car, including the manual, “…en francais” he said, with a chuckle. Little does he know how good I am with the photo-identification component of Google translate on my phone!
This tendency to avoid has been an ongoing concern in my life, and, as most always, once confronted and dealt with, I find the issue is almost always less difficult than expected. And, I have found that my abilty to understand has gotten better just by being here. Even through passive participation I can hear more distinct words today than I did a month ago.
On Sunday, on the promenade in Biarritz (yes, we can drive to Biarritz for the day!), while my friend Elaine was videoing waves, a man out for a stroll stopped, first to watch her video over her shoulder, and then to ask me what she was doing. My response: “ Une artiste” brought on an onslaught of French from the man. Even though I told him I didn’t speak French, he kept talking. And, oddly enough, we figured out how to understand each other. At the end of 10 or 15 minutes of conversation, he knew I was from California, Elaine was from New York, and where we are each living here in France; we knew he lived in Anglet (which is where everything in that area must be happening, because it came up at least 4 times that day) and he had rich relatives living outside Los Angeles, in Palmdale (not Palm d’or, as he had told us at first), who built homes for service men stationed at the local air base. When we left him, after the appropriate enchanté, both Elaine and I were ecstatic that we had been able to experience the conversation with him. It was so random, he was so charming, I was finally enlightened. I realised that, in order to fully experience France, I have to interact with French people. And, to do that, I have to allow myself to fail at the language in order to learn the language.
So, here’s my commitment: I am coming out of hiding and am going to learn French. I will get a teacher, do my lessons, listen to the radio and TV, read the newspaper. I have already made a point, over the past week or two, of trying not to stop the conversation before it starts by immediately stating I don’t speak French, or I don’t understand. An amazing amount can be conveyed with just a few words and a lot of gesturing to fill in the blanks. It will certainly help if I can master the following:
Mon français est mauvais, mais je suis en train d’apprendre. My French is bad but I’m trying to learn. (Said with a shrug and a big, big smile). This will replace that one statement I’ve mastered, Je ne compounds pas, which immediately shuts down any possible conversation.
S’il vous plaît répéter ce que vous avez dit. Please repeat what you said. Not sure of the body language that will most appropriately accompany this, so will revert to that smile again. This will replace the blank stare and gapping mouth that I exhibit when someone talks to me and all I here is gobbldy-gook. That happened tonight as I was out walking in the neighbourhood.
Optionally, I may use Parlez plus lentement s’il vous plait. Please speak more slowly. Again, big smile is all that is needed here, too. Maybe a little Gaelic shrug won’t hurt. will be accompanied by an internal prayer the they are saying something I can actually recognise when they slow down.
Luckily, the people here in Southwestern France are warm, friendly, and almost alway eager to find a way to communicate. So, while I work on my language skills, worry not! I will still be loving living here in France!