J’apprends, mais très lentement. (I learn, but very slowly.)
I have a study date today with classmates from my French course, and our mid-term test is tomorrow. The class is a lot of fun, thanks in no small part to Denise, our instructor. The other students are a lot of fun, too, from a lady bravely trying to learn a third language in her second language (or a fourth in her third, she’s from China and speaks Mandarin and Cantonese, in addition to English), to the chou-chou de professor (teacher’s pet), our token male. (The classes are almost exclusively female, as it’s mostly military spouses. The chou-chou is “un homme au foyer,” a house husband, as it’s his wife who’s in the military.)
Some days I leave class, elated from the giggling with Denise and my classmates. I leave feeling I’ve learned a bit more, that I may just get this whole French thing at some point. I’m certainly armed with a lot more words than I was before classes started, and I’m losing some of my fear and embarrassment when it comes to trying to speak. (Seriously, at least one of us from this class is going to learn how to say heureux – happy – correctly!) Some days, though, I leave with a certainty that I’ll never, never understand people from this region when they talk to me, and they’ll absolutely never understand me when my flat Okie Anglo mouth tries to awkwardly relate in their language. It’s discouraging at times, to try very hard to use my limited French and to receive only quizzical looks in return.
There are, however, small victories sometimes that mean a lot, that help chip away a little more at the discomfort and remind me that, as long as I keep trying, I’ll get better. I had one of those days yesterday. I went to Costco to buy an elliptical. Not being a totally professional Costco addict (like mon beau-pere, my father-in-law), I didn’t know how to go about getting a cart and getting the darn thing to the front to pay and then into my car, even without a language barrier (it was big and HEAVY). I went to customer service and very carefully mouthed, “J’ai besoin d’aide avec l’elliptique. J’achète maintenant.” (“I need help with the elliptical. I buy now.” I’ve a way with words, eh?) It took a couple of tries, but the lady to whom I was speaking finally got my drift and went to get me help. It took three men to get the thing into my car, and then I cut the box in the car and got all but one piece downstairs by myself. Thanks to a friend, the final piece got muscled downstairs, and I now have a SUPER awesome new elliptical (which, incidentally, is calling out insults from the basement right now about women who blog instead of exercising…guess I’ve got a date with it in a few).
I had another small victory today, but it looms large in some ways. The phone is my worst enemy here. In person, I can generally muddle through well enough to do what I need to do. I can usually find someone who is at least marginally bilingual, or I can use gestures and expressions to help me play a sort of charades that helps a bit when words fail. The phone, however, takes away all visual cues, leaving me grasping desperately at the few words I have and leaving my Anglo ears reeling from the barrage of words I can’t decipher. I had a repairman scheduled to come to my home this morning to check out my fireplace. I was assured that he would NOT be billingual, haha, but that we could call Gilles at dispatch (who is bilingual and scheduled the service call) if we needed a translator.
I was talking to my mom on the phone (through the computer) when my cell phone rang this morning. I answered it to find it was the repairman calling, as I’d suspected it would be. I sensed his immediate confusion when I answered in English (which I’m still mostly fluent in), and after a brief hesitation, he began to speak to me in French. I responded, “Lentement, s’il vous plait, très très lentement. Je suis Americaine, je parle un peu francais seulement.” (“Slowly, please, very very slowly. I’m American, I speak a little French only.”) While I’m a long, long way from bilingual (and may never actually get there), I’ve made enough progress to be able to understand his query as to whether or not I was at home now, and to tell him that I was. I hung up and picked up my headset again to find my mom giggling. “It’s just so funny to hear you speaking in French like that!” I guess it sounds like French to her, at least.
The part of these small victories that looms so large is realizing that the fear, the anxiety, the embarrassment is slowly fading into the background. Some days, it’s still hard to work up the energy to even put gas in my car, knowing that there’s always a chance for the language barrier to rear up and complicate even the simplest of chores. But some days, I have the strength to push forward, to charge right out of my comfort zone and meet this new life head on. Today was one of those days. I used my broken French, and the repairman used his broken English, and we muddled through his whole visit without me even breaking into a sweat, haha! (I totally do that, get so nervous and uncomfortable I start to sweat.) He wasn’t some scary monster, just a man who speaks a different language than me. He was kind, worked to understand me, and we even managed to joke around a bit. I told him I’m scared of winter, that I’m from Oklahoma, no winter there. His response? (en francais) “HAHA! Welcome to Chicoutimi!” I also thanked him as he finished up and showed me how to operate the fireplace, and he laughed as I told him, en francais, “Thank you so much, now I don’t die this winter.”
Small victories, but the lack of sweaty palms or a raised heartbeat looms large, indeed. A couple more months until my best friend is home…a couple more months to continue to learn and adjust and to get ready for the awesome life we’re going to make out of our time together here.
And, in case you were wondering…ONE MORE SLEEP.