I remember when I became a francophile. In fourth grade, we had a brief unit where we studied French. I don’t remember the specifics of what we learned, probably a few basic vocabulary words, but I can still hear the record my teacher played; I can still hear their voices, a simple exchange between a father and daughter. It ended with: “À tout à l’heure, Papa!…À tout à l’heure, chérie.”
It all sounded so lyrical, so poetic. I was hooked.
In middle school, most students took Spanish, which was the practical choice given that I grew up in New Mexico. But the year we had to study a foreign language, my school offered French for the first time. So I enrolled. That year, I went on the school trip to Washington D.C., and my friend Nicole and I spent an entire day wandering around the National Mall pretending to be French (getting so caught up in our roles that we almost missed the bus).
But while I studied French for four more years between high school and college, and while French was always one of my best subjects, I never really learned to speak speak it.
Now that I’m living in Paris for six months, living in Paris and living alone with no easy access to meaningful conversation (streaming Lifetime movies on YouTube doesn’t count), I feel the lack, and this loss of language has shaken me. What do you do when words are your life and you no longer have words? Or, to be more precise, when you no longer have les bons mots? Four years ago, the last time I stayed in Paris, we had a discussion of politics one day in French class. In my mind, in English, I had a million things to say about corruption and capitalism and racism, sexism, a gaggle of -isms. But in French, all I could say was, La politique est très importante. I had everything to say but no way to say it.
Today I find myself alternating between using every single French word I can squeeze into the most simple sentence: Excusez-moi madame, si c’est possible, s’il vous plaît, pouvez-vous me dire où sont les toilettes? or using as few words as possible: Toilettes? (My method in China was often to eliminate words altogether and just squat, but luckily I don’t need to go that route here.)
This shouldn’t be so difficult. It shouldn’t take me fifteen minutes to work up the courage to ask where the toilets are and then another twenty minutes to order a sandwich. I convince myself that I’ve never said a single word correctly in French, and just when I think I’ve said something right, for example, the ever-challenging: Oui, the other person looks at me like I’m speaking Russian (then again, maybe I am speaking Russian). I feel like I have a giant wad of cotton stuffed in my mouth when I speak. I find myself whispering in conversation, as if lowering my volume will make my skills less noticeably bad. (No wonder they don’t know what you’re saying; they can’t hear you, idiote!)
In English, I’m smart. I’m articulate. I’m funny. No, not just funny. I’m witty. Being a hyper-verbal type, I define myself by these things: reading words, writing words, speaking words, hearing words. Words are my life. So when I’m living alone, in a place where words evade me, who do I become?
Still, I try. I know that making oneself understood is the top priority, that in the moment it doesn’t matter if there’s a more precise word to express what I need to say. It doesn’t matter if I confuse le passé composé with l’imparfait (or if I forget we live in a world where the past tense exists in any form). I know hand gestures can move derailed conversations forward. I know that a smile and the words, Désolée, mon français est horrible, usually receive a smile in response. Contrary to stereotypes, I find that most French people are friendly and willing to engage in conversation if one is willing to try.
In general, I can navigate the day doing simple tasks, but can I be funny in French?
Just last week, fueled by two glasses of wine, I did a little shopping. I needed a reusable shopping bag as I’d forgotten to pack one. I stopped at a shop down the street from my apartment, made my purchase, and the saleslady asked if I wanted a bag. “Un sac pour mon sac?” I said. And she sort of laughed.
Okay, it wasn’t my best work, but it felt like a start. I immediately texted a friend:
“I’m funny in France. Who knew?”
“You’re always funny. Please.”
Perhaps this is true, but does the funny always translate?
A few days later I had to buy an air mattress — matelas gonflable. I do some research, write down a few notes, and head out. There’s a sporting goods company in France called Au Vieux Campeur, but rather than one huge store, it’s a series of multiple stores in the same neighborhood, each of which specializes in a specific category of sporting goods. After going to the one that sells air mattresses, I realize I still need a cheap, refillable water bottle. I ask the woman at the first store which of the many would sell un bouteille pour d’eau (not really what it’s called, I’m sure) and she hands me a map and gives a few simple directions.
At the second shop, a man wearing a security uniform sees me carrying my matelas gonflable and approaches me. I assume he wants to check my receipt, so I reach for it, but no, he wants to show me how to inflate the mattress. Through a series of fragmented words and hand (well, foot) gestures, I realize that this one inflates by pressing a mechanism with one’s foot.
Je comprehends, I say. Mais, est-ce que ç’est facile? Is it easy?
Je ne sais pas, he replies with a shrug.
Parce que, ma mere. Il faut qu’elle… I motion pressing my foot and feign an exhausted look on my face.
The man laughs. Apparently the thought of a daughter forcing her mother to inflate an air mattress is worthy of a smile. Like I said, it’s not my best work. But two out of two ain’t bad. In fact, it’s a nice start.