Up until this point, every entry here has been overwhelmingly positive – which is great because that’s a true reflection of how I feel. So, j’hésite [I hesitate] to add any thoughts of negativity. Not because I want to look at this experience completely through rose-colored glasses and forget the bad or stressful moments, but because I don’t want to misrepresent things. Overall, everything continues to be wonderful, but there are moments when I am down and now is one of them.
The problem? I’m discouraged. I’m disappointed. I’m déçue. All because I am beginning to realize that I cannot speak French. Yes, it appears that I can carry on conversations in the language with my American-student friends and my host mother – in fact, I am happy to report that I am beginning to feel more at ease in these exchanges – but, apparently, the rest of the world speaks a different French that I do not understand.
The minute someone other than my host mom, a friend or a professor asks me something, I freeze. It always sounds all jumbled and not-like-French to me. My immediate response of “Pardon” and the deer-in-the-headlights look on my face surely makes me seem as if I’m another stupid American who can’t speak a lick of French. But how can this be? I can grasp Proust, but I can’t understand the boulanger?
My most recent episode ended up invoking a tearful ride home on the Metro after I horribly botched a conversation with a representative of Greenpeace France at a meeting for interested volunteers.
Each time this happens I feel stupider and stupider. I’ve been here for over a month; shouldn’t I be seeing some progress? And my confidence is beginning to dwindle. Maybe I should just start speaking in English; all the French respond to me in it anyway.
Just today, I ventured to the Bibliothèque du film, where I had to subscribe to watch the films for my cinema class. After struggling through the application for the card with the surprisingly patient secretary and successfully employing the nifty coatroom lockers, I headed to the vidéothèque [the library of films]. I observed intently as the girl in front of me checked the film she wanted to watch in the catalogue and then told the librarian, who gave her the film. It looked simple enough. But as I tried to utter, “Je cherche Indochine de Régis Wargnier,” she gave me a blank stare. “You couldn’t find it in the catalogue?,” she answers back in English. We continue to play this game where I stumble along in French and she responds in perfect English as she explains where I have to click in the catalogue and the number I need to give her. This woman was actually amazingly helpful and very friendly, but it’s unfortunate that my French is so horrible to her ears that she’d prefer English.
I again embarrassed myself when I returned the DVD of the 1921 colonial film L’Atlantide – I didn’t actually get to watch Indochine yet because someone had it out – to the desk after I had finished. This time, the patient women from reception was waiting and as I walked up with a friendly “Bonjour,” she replied “Comment?” [What?] as if I was speaking gibberish. She then asked me something I didn’t understand. Finally, we worked out that I was finished with the DVD and wanted to give it back (which I thought was apparent enough), and then she asked me if I was finished for the day or if I had other things to watch.
I knew this was a trap. French people like to do this; they ask you a question as if you have the choice between two options when really you do not. There were clearly people waiting, so I had figured I would have to forfeit my place. But since she asked, I thought I might as well try so I responded that yes, in fact, I do have something else to watch. Snap! That’s me falling right into her trap. She very condescendingly informs me that there are actually people waiting so I can’t hog the terminal and I must patienter [wait].
Thanks for the life lesson, Madame. At least that whole conversation took place in French.