Living in the City of Light is quite the dichotomy. The joy of experiencing the history, the architecture, the museums, the monuments, the food, the ambiance, the excitement…And then there is the frustration of the language, the unknown, unspoken “rules”, the language, the mystery meals and having to speak. As I write, I see the “joy” certainly outweighs the “frustration”, but trying to find a balance, or even recognizing the tipping of the scales proves to be a challenge. And even when I think, “Hey girl, you’re doing great! You’ve got this French thing!,” I get knocked down immediately by a grocery clerk, the pharmacist, the bus driver, whoever I encounter. Who made up talking, anyway? I may be able to do quite well if I just didn’t have to speak.
Case in point. The other day, I went to a shop to buy a pie plate. I was being adventurous and making a quiche. I had transformed a recipe, translated the ingredients, and was off to the kitchen store and the market. The hipster at the kitchen store waiting on me was very nice, smiled through my French and let me be. I listened to him explain the special in his mother tongue, nodded and clucked like I understood every word, and continued shopping. I was feeling quite proud of myself for actually understanding the sale, not from what he described but because I could read the sign. And who doesn’t like being able to buy nice things and receive a discount? But then Satan reared his ugly head and made me retract like a language turtle into my insecure self again. What if I don’t understand this as well as I think I do and I have to ask a question? What if I don’t get the discount and I have to ask why and I can’t? Why do I have these thoughts? Because words had to come out of my mouth. I had to articulate some kind of interaction and I panicked. What is with me? Why can’t I just laugh through my constant mistakes and even better, learn from them? This magniloquent “language of love” is getting the better of me by the day.
When I went to pay for my purchases, the salesman told me the amount in French, then tried to say it in English. I said (in French), “It’s okay. I understand but I speak English.” So then he asked me if I spoke British English (in French). Well, that threw me for a loop and I said (all proud), “Yes, I do speak English.” Lovely. Thankfully, my social awareness cues haven’t atrophied too much, and I saw I said the wrong thing, so I said I am from the United States and I speak English. (Duh, Mari Catherine!) Well, for those of you who haven’t had French since high school, I highly recommend practicing saying “the United States” in French. It is so fun! Who doesn’t love a phrase that just zips off your tongue like, “les Etats Unis.” Because the “s” is before the E and again before the U, they make a “Z” sound and it is pretty much pronounced, “Le Zetas Zunis.” Try it. Fun, huh? And so, despite my joy in saying I am from such a cool place that is fun to say and I speak English, he laughs and says, in English, “Oh, I see. You speak the strong English.” I couldn’t decide if that was a compliment or a jab…but I began to laugh so hard! The clerk was laughing and even the other clerk joined in. We are called arrogant. We are called domineering. But speaking the strong English? I had never heard that and I love it! And could I think of anything witty to say in French after that? Could I answer him with anything strong and educated? No. I guffawed and said, “Touché,” which I thought being a French-English word, was appropriate, but apparently was not what I thought I meant, because he looked at me and said, “Umm…D’accord. Au revoir.” Oh well. I have a nice new spaghetti pot and, as Wade and I call it, “blogfodder”.
Did you know there is a real anxiety associated with this frustration of mine? I did not make this up! It is called xenoglossophobia, foreign language anxiety. No, I really don’t think I have it, but I have trolled the sites of those who actually have it, looking for clues to overcome my muteness. So when do I conquer this fear of speaking French? I have encouraging, multilingual friends who tell me to stay with it~keep trying. It takes practice! I have looked up ways to commit language to my brain. I listen. I read. I don’t just hand over my phone with the translation but speak what I am trying to say. I carry conversations in French in my head. Okay, and even out loud sometimes when I am walking home from the market. I listen to my French CDs. Surely, all these little points should stick together and like a strong adhesive bond, bind in my head and then leap/fall/drip out of my mouth with some form of intelligence. Maybe I will be reading about me as the person that linguists-scientists can’t figure out, the woman who was born without an ability to learn anything but the strong English.