I’ll admit it, I’m a total Francophile. I’m sure you all have at least one friend or acquaintance like me. Once I chose French as the language I wanted to (try to) learn, I totally dorked out on French culture. By French II, not only had I decided France was the closest thing to heaven on Earth, I also decided I wanted to spend the rest of my life in a small French village with a wife that resembled Marion Cotillard (I was under the impression all French girls looked like her … ).
So now that I’m actually in happy-magical-heaven-on-earth France (or more specifically, Lyon) how has reality matched up with my expectations?
Well, aesthetically, France does not disappoint. The buildings are old, beautiful and full of history. Sidewalks are used for dining more often than walking, as everyone tends to sit outside enjoying beer, wine, café, tacos that are not actually tacos at all and/or le plat du jour. There are even Roman ruins here! Mon dieu!
However, that whole different language thing is a bit of a problem.
First of all, it’s strange but I was immediately upset to see the French language being used in a practical way. It’s no longer just the language of my somewhat snobby French films, French class and fancier American restaurants. Nor is it just the language of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. It’s now also the language of laundry detergent ads, infomercials, McDonald’s and even teenagers.
Another language bummer: I have to actually speak French now. Despite my obsession with all things French, I hardly spoke up in French class and every time I meant someone from France, whenever I told them about my plans to study in their homeland and learn their language, I always did so in English. To put it plainly, it’s a little intimidating.
I quickly discovered that losing my ability to communicate fluidly because of the language barrier basically made me like a big child, maybe even a baby. You can tell by some of the responses of native speakers. Sometimes they are very patient, like a kindergarten teacher. They speak slowly, kindly correct your errors and don’t look the least bit bothered when you demolish their mother tongue. Others are less patient. They either give you a look that is normally reserved for crying babies (or maybe their caretakers) or they avoid a conversation, much like someone who — like me — avoids holding a baby. Others are constantly finishing your sentences like an impatient high-school tutor who is tired of their text messages and Twitter updates being interrupted by their pesky pupil.
But being a baby in a foreign country has its benefits. It produces funny or hilariously awkward situations — well, they’re funny now, not so much at the time of the incident. For example, one time at dinner, I thought my host dad was asking me if I wanted another crêpe and I said “no thanks” but he was actually just asking me if I had a good day. One time, a friend of mine wanted to say she was full after dinner but instead, she said she was pregnant.
The language barrier was also the reason why I bought contact lens solution for hard contacts instead of soft contacts. It only took a week of constant discomfort for me to realize what the heck was going on. Yet even in this situation, I couldn’t help but laugh at myself … once the burning stopped.
Another perk to being an over-grown foreign baby … in compromising scenarios, all you have to do is say “Sorry, I don’t understand!” in your thick American accent and people will leave you be. This happened to me when a teenager in a grocery store pulled the ol’ “hey mister” trick and asked me to buy his vodka while we were right in front of the checker. This strategy can also help out the ladies when they’re dealing with some of the peskier French men who can sometimes be a little aggressive.
Overall, my first month in France has been an interesting one full of ups and downs, language failures and language successes. Am I ready to take upper division level courses in French? probably not, but we’ll see how it goes. As long as I don’t have to talk much, it should be ok.
Image Source: Kevan Rolfness, Daily Cal