La fin du debut (The end of the beginning)

(Pour mes amis francophones, peut-être j’essayerai bientôt d’écrire ici en français. Ça prend BEAUCOUP plus de temps et d’effort que l’anglais, particulièrement chez moi, avec ce clavier anglais. Aussi, je suis assez éloquente en anglais. C’est pas du tout vrai en français!)

I’ve been meaning to reflect and write for quite some time. I’ve started to write a couple of times, but the words didn’t come. Today, I started an email that turned into a blog post about my favourite yard weasel, ma marmotte Jean-Marc, and suddenly my fingers can’t tap these keys enough. I haven’t written since starting my full-time French courses in November, and I found I have a lot to reflect on.

I feel like I’ve reached the end of the beginning. I’ve been here in Québec for almost two years now. Our HHT (“house-hunting trip” for those of you lucking enough to know diddly squat about military acronyms) was almost exactly two years ago. I remember thinking before that trip that I understood some French. I’d been using Rosetta Stone, though I would become frustrated and have to stop after 15 or 20 minutes. Upon my arrival at the Bagotville airport, I realized that “Qu’est-ce que c’est? C’est un vélo,” (What is it? It’s a bike) was going to get me exactly NOWHERE. The people around me did not even seem to be speaking a language composed of words. Instead, they seemed to sing some sort of birdsong. I couldn’t pick out one word in 50. Our realtor was bilingual, and I think she was probably the only person I was able to talk to besides the husband.

We moved in July. Three weeks later, the husband was gone, heading to Ontario for a course that would last almost five months. I recall a day, during that brief three-week period, when I was in the car with him, crying a little bit after being overwhelmed at the grocery store minutes earlier (I not only didn’t speak French, I had no clue what a “gram” was or how many of them I wanted when I prepared to purchase some turkey at the charcuterie). Tears fell softly as I told my husband I didn’t know how I would manage without him, when even buying groceries was overwhelming. He smiled softly at me, patted my knee, and told me, “You’ll get by, baby. Or…you’ll starve. Get by or starve, those are your options.” Then he smiled that devilish grin of his, and I was reminded how lucky I am to have a partner who knows that sympathy is often far less soothing to me than teasing and mean jokes.

I made some friends and managed to tick off the months, days, and seconds until he could return to la maison grise, our new home in the Saguenay. I visited him a few times in Ontario. I took my first French course with other military spouses. And then he came home. 

That was also difficult, because I thought that our life would magically go back to being much more like the life we’d left behind in Oklahoma. His return was supposed to make it all better. But while I loved having him close again…it didn’t. That first winter was pretty hard on me. Then came the long-awaited spring, and things were better again. I enjoyed the brief summer and got more comfortable with a much smaller, quieter life. As fall approached, I gained admittance to the military French course on base, and I finally got good news on the immigration front. In October, I became a Canadian permanent resident, and my immigration status allowed me to register for full-time immigrant French courses.

I started those courses in November, and while I have a pretty extensive vocabulary in English, I can’t quite express what a wonderful opportunity they provided me. We spoke only French in the classroom, and even during our breaks (well, most of us, including myself and another American, conversed in French during our breaks). The teachers were wonderful, answering any question, even when we wanted to learn about cursing in French. It’s amazing to look back and realize how much I learned in six short months. At the beginning, I had a lot of French words but few complete sentences, no real ability to express myself, and great difficulty speaking in anything other than the present tense. After our last class last week, I find myself easily able to construct sentences, to express myself, and to walk without fear into any situation that presents itself. I’ve been to the Québécois version of the DMV to exchange my license and was able to communicate about a rather complicated issue (my nameS, plural, but that’s another blog post) without difficulty. I use the phone without fear to make appointments. I make small talk and joke with ease with cashiers at the businesses I frequent.

I feel like the completion of my immigrant French courses marks the end of my beginning here. Two years is a long adjustment period, but I finally feel like I belong here. I’ve recently started looking for work, and if you had told me three years ago I would have a folder on my computer with resumes, cover letters, and letters of recommendation IN FRENCH, I wouldn’t have known how to scoff hard enough. I now know all of the words to a popular Québécois song, and sometimes I sing along with it in my car. I get most of my news from talk radio…in French! I’ve started a language exchange group for Anglophones and Francophones to work together to maintain or improve their second language skills. Today I met with a staff member of the family support center to discuss resources available to the language exchange group…and I was capable of having the meeting entirely in French! 

La fin du debut doesn’t mean I’m fluent in French, though I puff up a bit with pride when I look at my certificate of completion from the school listing my level achieved as “avancé,” and when I read the letter of recommendation from a dear administrator at the center, in which she says that I’m bilingual. It doesn’t mean that my French studies are over, or that I won’t face more challenges here. What it means to me is that I’ve created a place for myself here, that I’ve worked hard and am now starting to really see the results of that hard work. It means that now, instead of wondering if I’ll face some language-related problem while out shopping, I’m starting to think about finding work in a French environment. Instead of terror and feelings of inadequacy, these plans evoke pride and excitement.

I’m not “there” yet, wherever “there” is. But I’ve made a hell of a good start at it. I’m ready to walk, head held high, into whatever this next chapter holds.

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