I’ve had a rough week French-wise. I was sheep-dipped in it because we had a leaking pipe in the basement, a delivery of heating oil, a broken boiler, a sky-high (and incorrect) tax assessment and two shocking customer service experiences that I took to the next level. We received a few surprise invoices that needed further explanation and I acted as translator for a friend who moved house. Sorting out personal admin in French takes 10 times longer and I am now mentally exhausted.
The week was intense but it ended off on a positive note with a reasonably fluid conversation with a new neighbour. The only blip was when she asked me what my daughter’s name is and I replied, ‘16 months’. Oh well.
I know I harp on a lot about speaking French in this blog but it is a big part of my life. Imagine trying to coordinate a plumber or query an incorrect invoice while you are bound and gagged. That’s how frustrating it feels. Or you could imagine it like this. Ever been constipated? Some days expressing myself coherently feels as if I am trying to push out a big, fat verbal poo. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, nothing meaningful comes out. It takes extreme effort but I will say, those random times when you do succeed, it is deeply satisfying.
My tough week started off last Thursday with Megan’s concert at crèche. I knew other parents would be there and I suspected I might have to chitchat to a few of them and this required preparation. I struggle with unstructured, spontaneous social conversations especially in groups. The day I can have a decent social conversation in a group will mean I am fluent. It’s a long way off.
Sometimes I enjoy French-only situations that force me to practice. Lately I have spent so much time speaking French during the day that I am mentally drained and can’t cope with anything extra. That is why cell phones are blessings. I warded off chats with strangers by clinging to my iPhone and tapping away at it in quick, squirrel-like gestures. I bet people thought I was dealing with a major crisis at the office whereas I was actually deleting surplus photos.
Then I thought, ‘Julie get a grip. Go and talk to someone.’
I approached a mom of a girl in Megan’s class and I fired my questions at her. ‘Where do you live? How old is your child? Does she like the crèche? Where do you work? What do you do? Are you Swiss?’
Last Sunday we went to a mentally-draining charity brunch. I don’t know what I was smoking when I bought the tickets. It was probably on one of my good French days and I was not intimidated by the thought of sitting with random strangers at a big French-only picnic table. Alastair hated it.
Speaking of Alastair, he has been taking lessons for over a year. His grammar is improving and our teacher said he is a maestro at conjugating verbs. His spoken French still hasn’t progressed beyond Bonjour, Merci, Je voudrais un Euromillions pour 3 francs and Je ne parle pas bien francais. He is also good at d’accord, which means OK. He says OK like a true Frenchman. He is also a pro at the informal ouais that is a derivative of oui and means yeah. While I talk in French, Alastair contributes little but does his best by hanging at my side, nodding and saying ‘Yeah ok yeah ok, ok.’
I wish Alastair had more confidence in his abilities. Many of my expat friends are the same and I think they see learning a language as a distinct before and after experience. Often my English friends say things such as, ‘One day when I speak French, I’ll do this or that’. Beginners seems to think that one day when there is a full moon and the wind is blowing in a certain direction, they will have a Freaky Friday experience and wake up and miraculously start speaking French. ‘Quel surprise! Je parle francais! Ooh la la! Am I speaking French? Yes! Oui!’
My French teacher says Alastair may improve if he is immersed in the language and is put in a sink or swim situation that would force him to expand his French repertoire. That’s why I signed us up for the charity brunch – I felt he could do with a little push, as one pushes someone into a swimming pool.
The bureaucratic brick walls and the unbelievably shit customer service in this region means that I am constantly challenged. My bad French week reached a dramatic crescendo when COOP (a big supermarket chain here) delivered 3000 litres of heating oil and forgot to reopen a valve in our tanks. Our heating stopped and we had to call in an expert during the night.
The following day I rang the company to explain their error and the first person I spoke to slammed the phone down and another repeated ‘It’s not our fault, it’s not our fault’ as if he were autistic like Dustin Hoffman in the movie Rain Man. Eventually he screamed, ‘FOR THE ELEVENTH AND LAST TIME, IT’S NOT OUR FAULT.’
It is situations like that that make me rise up like a phoenix out the ashes. I spoke back to him in the most kick-ass French ever. When I didn’t know some words, I just made them up – like le valve and la lid. I didn’t give a toss. I’ve told people that the best way to jump in and start speaking French is to get really, really angry. It is when you try too hard and think too much before you speak, that you struggle with that awful verbal poo.