Looking through the French window
I have always been a communicative person. When I lived in the US, I worked in advertising sales for 25 years. Now, suddenly after 52 years of life, I am settled in a country were everyone around me is speaking in a language that I don’t understand. I always loved eavesdropping on conversations. Now, I can’t understand a word. I am on the outside looking in. What I see is like observing a Tower of Babel.
It’s strange being in this situation. When you don’t understand, your sense of hearing becomes muted and your other senses become more acute, especially your sense of sight. It is as if this sense reboots. What you can’t hear, you observe. What you can’t hear and understand, you look for other signs of life. You start observing peoples expressions. When they speak to you, if they have a nice face, smile, then you shake your head, smile back, and say things like “ah bon” “oui”. All the time hoping that what you are agreeing with is something nice being said. If they gesture and speak in a gruff way, then it is “Pardonnez Moi”. But it is said very emphatically.I remember when I first started glancing at the French news with my husband. I’d examine the screen for clues as to the sense of the news segment. I’d ask myself, “What is going on in this picture? What are the people doing? Where do they seem to be? Are they speaking strongly, laughing?” When you can’t figure it out, you start creating your own story. I’m thinking, “Nice outfit she's wearing.” “Who cut her hair”? “Wish I knew her coiffure.” "I wonder if she lives in Paris? Or, there is the other side of the coin, “Why would anyone pick that to wear”? “Boy, that outfit is a bit risqué for TV.” “That newscaster has such big ears.”
On other occasions, we have had people come for dinner. Many of these people speak some English, but hey, they are French and in their country…they are going to speak French. Pour quoi pas (why not?)? I try so hard to listen and pick up on the conversation. “Ah, I recognize that word”, I think. “Now what was the verb and what tense?” “Ok, I can comment on that.” But by the time I do get the words and the proper order, they are already on to another subject. So I sit and I am mute with a stupid smile on my face. Until the all time pretext for escape comes into my head. “I know”, I say to myself,” I’ll excuse myself and abscond to the kitchen to see about dinner.” That always works well.
While eating dinner, I chew, I smile, and sometimes I nod my head…. I haven’t a clue what’s going on! Can you imagine how hard that is when you are a person who loves to communicate; who has opinions? They must think my husband married a mute! They are so wrong! There is a person behind that smile. She's intelligent; she has opinions. She's funny.
By the end of the evening, I am so tired from serving dinner, and trying to listen and comprehend the French, that eventually, I just tune out. I am underwater hearing only the vibrations of sound. The brain has “flat lined”.
Now, after almost 9 years, my vocabulary has improved. I can get by day to day. I do understand more. However, the art of conversation continues to be difficult for me. Maybe it is that I started learning a language so much older than most. But I am determined to stick with this French language, continuing to cram my head with grammar, new vocabulary and idiomatic expressions. I will triumph! Even if they have to bury me with a French dictionary.
Ironically, there is a stranger sensation. When we travel back to the States, suddenly I feel like someone turned up the volume. I say to myself, “My God, I understand these people. I know what they are saying. But these people are so loud!”
Are they really louder? Maybe. Maybe us Americans tend to be louder. All I know is that I am no longer on the other side of the window looking in. I am among the milieu; I am among the living!