We’ve been in France for about two months and although we’ve been fully intending to study French like we mean it, we just somehow haven’t gotten around to it yet. Before we flew here and were living in DC with friends, we took a private French class two days a week for three weeks through Fluent City, which gave us a great foundation and a leg up – or rather a fighting chance – in pronunciation. But life, travel and other pursuits (Lord of the Rings trilogy, Bourne movies, choice episodes of the Big Bang Theory and the new Star Trek movies. . . wow) have occupied our down time and we haven’t yet set aside the previously imagined two hours a day to work on vocabulary and sentence structure.
It’s amazing though, how much you can understand through just living in a place – soaking up words through osmosis or inferring meaning through context and hand gestures, a skill in which Adam is particularly adept. Just this morning the lady mailman came to our door (and thank god Adam was the closest to the door – “not it!”) and yammered on in beautiful, singsong french for a good 10 seconds before pausing for Adam’s response. The only word I could detect was “voiture” which means car. Did she want us to move our car? Did she want to sell us her car? Is she in some sort of car related distress and needs our help? I was waiting for Adam to reply with the usual “je ne parle pas bien français” (I don’t speak French very well) but instead, he said “merci,” shut the door, turned to me and said “she’s coming by later in her truck to deliver a big package.” Whaaa?
Despite our ability to get by just fine – to communicate the essentials in cafes, gas stations, grocery stores, hardware and garden stores, at hotels – I’m dying to talk to the lady at our boulangerie about the business of bread, also I wouldn’t mind becoming her best friend. Normally our daily exchange consists of “hello – bread please – thank you! – goodbye – see you next time,” but the other day I worked up the courage to add another pleasantry:
Nice lady who smells like freshly baked bread: “Bonjour!”
Me: “Bonjour! Comment allez-vous?
Nice lady who smells like freshly baked bread: “Un hibou?”
That day I walked out of the bakery, hibou (I never intended to order) in hand, still wondering how she’s doing.
Our first week here, on your average quite Bassac night, I was reading downstairs – Adam was upstairs – and there was a knock at the door. Damn. At our doorstep stood a handsome young man wearing a kind smile and some sort of uniform. He was carrying a small box and a clipboard. He spoke to me in French and I decided that he was soliciting money for something, so I pulled some Euros out of my pocket (which seemed like the best way to end a conversation that I couldn’t have). He thanked me, handed me a calendar, waved goodbye and continued on to the next door. By the looks of the calendar, I either sponsored a race car driver or donated to the local fire department.
I’ve never in my life been more anxious to use my rusty, but proficient spanish. When in Spanish speaking countries I feel woefully inadequate about my language skills, but living as a semi-selective mute in France I would kill to be able to use it to communicate with people. Compared to my French comprehension, I am practically a native spanish speaker. The second week we were in France, we drove south to San Sebastián, Spain. As we approached the border, we were giddy at the thought of being able to communicate with relative ease – we’ll be mistaken for locals! – that is until this happened at the toll booth on the border:
Spanish toll booth guy: “Good afternoon, that will be $7.50” (as a deflated Adam hands him 10 euros)
Since most of my traveling has been in spanish speaking countries, muscle memory tends to take over in France – and spanish words spill out at really awkward moments. In Toulouse Adam and I went into a hip, packed hamburger joint full of students. One of the waiters put up two fingers and I nodded, indicated we did indeed want a table for two. For a second there I thought we were through the french gauntlet with only a simple hamburger menu to decipher. Then the pesky waiter returned with a question I can only assume had something to do with our drink order but to which we answered with a blank stare. With a touch of impatience but a perfect accent, he then asked: “Do you speak English?” to which I responded, “Si.”
Learning French from the ground up makes me appreciate the decade long progress I’ve already made in Spanish and I’ve decided when I get home, I’m going to really work at it. When I become fluent in Spanish, I’ll have France to thank for that.