Today was one of those days when things just worked. Nothing major, just all of the little things lining up right, giving me a smile to carry through throughout the day. A smile that seemed contagious, as it spread to many of the people around me. Today, I pulled a fucking FRIDAY on Monday’s ass.
It started with a good French class. J’adore mon professeur et mes comarades de classe! We have so much fun. And Denise (our instructor) is so very helpful. I mentioned to her that I was planning to look for an Anglo who was fluent in French to work with me on pronunciation and phonetics. Damn my Okie ears and mouth, I simply can’t duplicate or even hear some of the sounds in the French language. Trying to pronounce things “too French” just makes my words incomprehensible to native French speakers. I think learning Anglo approximations of those sounds would help me speak a lot more clearly to the people in this region. Denise not only thought it was a good idea, but she said she would speak to her advanced students to see if any of them wanted to talk to me about a tutoring gig.
I’ve been studying a bit more outside of class, as well (something of which I’d not been doing nearly enough). I can already see it’s helping. When I figure out something I want to say, or run possible encounters through my mind, I have a few more words to draw upon to try to mash together into something resembling a sentence. I think I’m retaining what I learn in class a tiny bit better, too. More words plus much more confidence equals seeing baby steps of progress almost every time I go out. I’m now able to manage very limited situations entirely in French. I don’t have to say I don’t understand or I don’t speak French NEARLY as much as I once did. Instead of asking if someone speaks English, I ask them to please speak slowly.
To push myself a bit further in my effort to acquire French, I decided I should get some children’s books and start trying to read them. The gentleman working at the bookstore today was very kind and approachable, and he responded slowly and clearly to my broken French. We conversed a little as he welcomed me to the store. All conversation was in French. I don’t know if he spoke any English; I didn’t ask, because I didn’t have to! I told him I am an American, that I learn French but very slowly (I only know present-tense verbs maintenant, haha! I may sound a little silly, but as long as I’m communicating, I’ll take it), and I need to study more. He said my French was very good (LIAR! but kind of him). I knew of one children’s book I wanted. It’s a French book, and I’d read an English translation a friend had. I asked if he had Le Petit Prince (the little prince). He smiled and found me a copy. After browsing a bit, I asked if the books in the section I was in were the only children’s books he had. He said no, and led me to a bigger section of children’s books. Knowing I’m learning, he corrected me and told me they don’t call children’s books “livres pour enfants” (books for children), but rather, “littérature jeunesse,” and I thanked him for teaching me that. I left with a big smile on my face and two new children’s books to start working through. I decided to have a beer and some lunch, and I conversed some with the waitress (in French only) and two gentlemen at the bar with me (in “franglais,” meaning I was practicing my French, and the guys were practicing their English). Ran several more errands all in French (including banking, which used to terrify me!), and I guess the happiness I was feeling was contagious, as it seemed everyone in the region had a smile for me today.
A lot of people never have to think of the price one pays to try to adjust to a new culture and language. As I’ve said before, this whole experience has left me far more empathetic, and I was never one of those “Why dontcha get back ta where ya came from if’n you cain’t learn to speak ‘Murican!” kind of people in the first place. In the beginning, it’s TERRIFYING to do something as simple as going to buy groceries or filling your car up with gas by yourself. I would have to work up my nerve just to hit the grocery store or the dépanneur. Once you work your nerve up to try, the smallest things seem so difficult, making even smaller things into huge victories. I remember how proud I was when I ordered lunchmeat from the deli the first time! So many things are just impossible, like asking the clerk at the grocery store to please not rape your bread by placing it in the bottom of the bag again. You just have to take what you get. Which is sometimes a bagful of groceries on top of your bread.
I used to avoid looking anyone in the eyes unless I absolutely had to, for fear that they might say a few small words of greeting and I would have to mumble out, I’m sorry, I don’t understand, I don’t speak French. I wilted under the confused looks of people trying to communicate the smallest things to me, like, “Do you need a sack?” at the grocery store, or “Is this all for you today?” at the gas station. Many times I worked up my nerve to try to use my French, only to be embarrassed and frustrated by receiving nothing but confusion for my efforts. Yes, there is definitely a price to pay to adjust and attempt to thrive in such a different place, a price that comes due in effort, in fear, in frustration, in getting knocked down and knowing you have to just get up and do it all again tomorrow, and sometimes in tears. And it’s a price that’s billed on a recurring basis.
Back before the move, my brother-in-law gave me some great advice about learning French. “You’re going to have to go out and try, use what limited words you have. And you’re going to feel stupid. And then you’re going to have to go out and try some more. And you’re going to feel stupid. And then you’re going to go out and try some more. And feel stupid. And repeat. But then, one day, you’ll realize you DON’T feel stupid!” And he’s right! Well, he oversimplified it quite a lot. And left a bit out. Possibly to avoid terrifying me any more than I already was. (Though, now that I type it out, trying to avoid terrifying me is totally not his thing. He’s the one who told me about the ravenous Saguenay wolves…which may or may not be a thing.) Right after you don’t feel stupid, then you go out and try again, and realize you DO feel stupid this time. And repeat. And feel a little less stupid a little less often over time. Until, I suppose, if you try hard enough for long enough, you only feel stupid as often as you do in your first language. (Because don’t we all have those “duh” moments?).
So I pay the price. In fear and effort and frustration and all of that, I pay in full. But I also am starting to see a return on my investment. The biggest change for the better so far is how much less fear I have. I was so scared and uncomfortable when I was first here, even with Q by my side, and a thousand times over once he left. Over time, that fear has diminished to near zero. I don’t get nearly as embarrassed anymore, either. I’ve learned you have to start somewhere, usually at the beginning. If I don’t try, and feel stupid, then I won’t learn. It’s just a part of the process, and nothing for me to be embarrassed about. There are plenty of Anglos living in Quebec who don’t even try to learn French, and plenty of Francos living elsewhere in Canada who don’t try to learn English. It’s not easy to do as an adult (especially an adult with a speech impediment called being from Oklahoma).
Today, I was victorious. Small victories, every one, but still cherished. There was the bookstore, and the conversations at the restaurant, and the conversations about paying a hospital bill, and the banking. There was the smiling man who waited in the parking lot for me to exit Ginny, just to ask what the band was that I was listening to when I pulled up. (It was a Fun. album, which is often my Saguenay driving soundtrack.) There was the lady at Costco who I asked to speak slowly (after she said something incomprehensible in rapid-fire French that didn’t even sound like words to me), which helped me understand an ENTIRE sentence when she asked me again more slowly. (Full sentences are still big for me, haha.) There was her coworker, who smiled at me and told me my hair made me look like the chick in Twilight, which was a sweet compliment (even if Stephanie Meyer can GO DIE IN A FIRE), and even if the mention of Twilight makes my eye twitch, understanding some French conversation was sweet enough to make me keep on smiling.
So yeah. Victories. I haz them. I shall have more. Along with the days I fall down. But I suppose falling down is worth it for the return on my investment, for how good it feels on the days when I do get up and manage to make some strides.