A couple of months ago I celebrated one year of living in France quietly and with little fanfare. I thought the city might do a special little light-up of the Eiffel Tower for me or something, but no dice. Maybe I haven’t paid enough taxes yet.
Despite the considerable milestone, in a rare case of unCorey-ness I never stopped to think much about what it meant to be living in a foreign country for this long. Hence this belated recap of how it’s going so far, particularly with the biggest challenge– my ability to parler français.
If French fluency is the princess locked in a tower, the language barrier is still a menacing castle moat separating me and my mighty steed from making any play at a rescue. And just like a medieval siege, you’ve got to be in it for the long haul — you pick away day after day, pressing your small victories when you can and minimizing the duration of inevitable retreats. You keep the faith that if your heart is true and noble you’ll somehow get there in the end, and it’ll be that much sweeter when you do. I guess you also hope the princess will look as good up close as she does from far away (in medieval times I’d put those odds at 50/50 on a good day).
I’ve had my share of victories, and one in particular always comes to mind. While crossing the Seine one sunny day on a tourist-packed bridge we approached something written upside down on the pavement, a French sentence in chalk and in big two-foot letters: Si tu aimes la vie, tu seras immortel. As we neared it a young American boy coming from the other direction tugged at his father asking “Dad, what does it say, what does it say?” The father showed no interest and kept walking, leaving the boy standing behind to stare at the alien inscription. Maybe because I felt bad for the neglected kid or maybe just out of pride that I could actually translate it, I turned to him and said “If you love life, you will be immortal”. A pretty heavy thing for a child to hear from a big strange dude but he quickly understood that I was translating for him. I like to think he might remember that moment, that maybe this mystical sentence from his first Paris trip will stick with him throughout life. For me it was a proud opportunity to use my limited powers to make a tiny difference in his day, not to mention the true icing on the cake: tricking a child into thinking you’re a genius.
Yet for each of those sunny victories, I’ve weathered plenty of stormy cringe-worthy defeats – most recently during a heated spat with a boss of mine which represented my first real argument in French. Not only was I linguistically ill-equipped, it was done over shoddy cell phone reception which meant I was just fighting a losing battle from the get go. I stood strong as best I could, held onto a bit of dignity, and after hanging up Charlotte congratulated me on a valiant effort…with one small observation. A word that I’d just used over and over – and had built my whole argument on – was malentendant, which I thought meant “misunderstanding”. But no, the word I should’ve used is the devilishly similar malentendu, leaving me with the nauseating reality that I’d just spent the whole argument telling my boss that the problems between us were due to a simple…deaf person.
Dear Princess, don’t hold your breath. Sincerely, Prince (un)Charming.♥
But the thing is, I handle barf-worthy blunders like this better now. Somehow I bounce back faster than I used to, and I think that’s where the real progress is happening. All the rest sort of falls into place behind it. Fourteen months of jumping back and forth between the frying pan and the fire has taught me to worry less about the wins and losses of daily battles and focus more on keeping the attack slow and steady over the long term. Somewhere there’s a kid on a bridge that needs to hear this.
Not to mention there are certain perks to being this far into a language immersion setting. At the post office, after admitting to the teller I was blissfully at a loss for a certain vocab word, she smiled and replied “Il vient d’où, ce bel accent?” (It comes from where, this beautiful accent?). Then later outside the Louvre a security guard was happy to answer my questions about its historic origins, surely giving up more than if he’d been constrained by English. Learning over the summer that a speed bump is a “donkey’s back” and a pot-hole is a “hen’s nest” makes even a simple car ride a reminder that there’s still a lot to be discovered in this brave new world. It’s like there’s a really cool club to be part of, and speaking the language is the only ticket that gets you completely inside. That’s a pretty tantalizing princess to dangle out a castle window.
I still don’t speak enough French at home with Charlotte, and my fluency probably suffers as a result. And I still get frozen mid-sentence all the time, and yes I occasionally choose flight over fight. And no matter how hard I try, sarcasm is usually a backfire waiting to happen (after our friend’s joyous explanation of her boyfriend’s marriage proposal, followed by celebratory cheers, I attempted to be cute and asked “So what was your answer?” to which she replied confusingly “Um…I said yes…” accompanied by a look of are you really that dense?)
But a quest is a quest, and I’ll keep keepin’ on. I’ll keep startling children with poetry translations and using the physically handicapped to argue points for as many more years as it takes. Maybe I’ll get in the club one day, maybe I’ll never quite make it, but for now I’ll enjoy my days peeking inside through windows and cracked doors. I’m not exactly a knight in shining armor yet, but that’s fine for now – being a might in shining armor is still one hell of an adventure.