Expats, French and getting a bit tangled up

May 2, 2017

The other day we were walking round the neighbourhood when a lady stopped her SUV, wound down her window and explained that her son was standing on the pavement up the road with a lost dog and she didn’t know what to do next. She launched into a convoluted explanation of how she discovered this dazed dog and how concerned she was that it may get run over.

She explained this to me in stilted French and I quickly realized she was actually English. She squeezed the words out with great effort and fluster and ended off with ‘I’m so sorry for my French.’

Halfway into her spiel, I should have said, ‘hey speak English if you want’ but instead I nodded and listened because, strangely enough, I enjoyed watching her struggle. It was comforting and encouraging for me to see that other English people also battle to express themselves and get red-faced and breathless in the process. It reminded me that there’s no need to be perfect or articulate, as long as you try. Trying is so endearing to the listener, even if you duff up and experience that exasperating feeling of verbal constipation. Sometimes I forget that it’s not just me! Hooray!

To relieve her of her agony, I eventually replied in English and we gabbled away and the conversation became smooth and easy like a fast-flowing river.

It blows my mind how many expats don’t try harder to learn French. Most of my foreign friends stick together and exist separate from the local culture in a kind of expat bubble. Some of my friends have been here years and years and still can’t speak a lick of French. I find that disgraceful. It almost makes me want to defriend them. I was at a coffee shop with some buds recently and when the drinks arrived, they said, ‘Thanks’ and I thought, ‘Good grief people. Can you not even manage a simple merci?’

An English speaking boy at Megan’s school invited the whole class (very kind that!) to his birthday party. The invitations were in English which I find a bit bullish and disrespectful to the French locals. As expats, it is our responsibility to make ourselves understood, not the responsibility of the listener to understand us. We have to make some effort, even the slightest effort, to integrate and it is no wonder there is this latent xenophobia in the region.

When I meet someone who is having a miserable time in Switzerland and wants to leave, the first question I ask is, ‘Can you speak French?’ or ‘Are you learning French?’ Guaranteed, without a doubt, they always say no. Being able to speak passable French has revolutionized and enriched my experience of living here. If you don’t try to communicate in the local tongue, you are always on the outside, on the back foot and at a constant disadvantage.

I mess up often. I struggle most with the conditional tense so ‘if I could have I would have or should have’. I can get into a right royal tangle, like a cat that gets wound up in a granny’s ball of wool.

This week I had a pregnancy check up at the gynae. I understood her to say, ‘Take off your clothes’ and then she left the room. When she walked back in a minute later, I had flung off everything, my bra, my undies – the works – and stripped right down so I was completely starkers. It turns out she said ‘DON’T take off your clothes.’ Dammit. It was so embarrassing standing before her in her cold, sterile office in all my naked glory. No clothes on makes one feel extra vulnerable and stupid. Usually when I make these sorts of grand and horrifying cock ups, I want to pull out my brain and spank it over my knee but this situation fortunately occurred at my gynaecologist who has already seen the most intimate parts of me so it was sort of ok.

One of the quirks about French is that some words are so similar and the slightest difference in pronunciation changes the meaning of the word entirely. So, jeune is young and jaune is yellow. Megan is still too yellow for ballet lessons. Then there’s cheveux which is hair and chevaux which are horses. I would like to book an appointment for you to cut my horses please. And what about champion (champion) and champignon (mushroom)? Run Megs run, go you mushroom go! I’ve said all those things, and the problem is that people rarely correct me so when my errors dawn on me later, I feel as if I’ve had spinach in my teeth or a snolly sticking out my nose and no one told me. I like being corrected because then the concepts truly sink in and I will never forget.

Al is trying hard with his French. He is motivated and determined but his progress is slow. Sometimes I feel it is as if he is climbing Everest in his flip flops. I wonder if he will ever get there in the end. The funny thing is that what he lacks in skill, he makes up for in confidence. My French is better than his but his confidence is more than mine. We were invited to locals for dinner and, while I shy away from these intense French social interactions, he dives in. Yeah! Let’s go! Whoo hooo! He is gung-ho even though his contribution to the conversation is slow and clunky and never gets beyond first gear. At least he tries, which is more than can be said for other expats in the area.

This picture is so quintessentially French. Why do the French never put baguettes in bags that cover the entire thing? Here, the boulangerie put paper round it to create a handle and the rest of it is exposed to the elements. It’s not very hygienic. When we buy a baguette from the local bakery, Megan likes to carry it home and wave it about like it’s her wand. This always amuses me because the word for ‘wand’ is ‘baguette magique’ which means ‘magic baguette’. I love it!!!



Thank you to teach me French. Instantaneously please.

January 8, 2012

The delightful French-speaking secretary at work recently said to me, ‘Julie (pronounced Zhoolee), what should I do with that sheet?’

‘What sheet?’ I asked.

‘You know, Zhoolee, that sheet we spoke about the other day.  I am sick of that sheet.’

‘Sheet?  The shit.  You mean to say that shit we spoke about!’

Sometimes, when French people speak English, I hear the cutest things.  I got an email from my recruiter and he wrote ‘Dear Julie.  I wanna know how things are progressing in your new job.’  Wanna?  Yo dude, come again?

I am sympathetic because I make the same mistakes with my pidgin French.  My French teacher once asked me what I did one afternoon and I said I swept the ceiling (J’ai balayé le plafond).  Another time, I finished my grammar exercise, put up my hand and announced with gusto ‘I am finished’.  I said, ‘Madame, je suis fini’.  Apparently that means that I am dead, finito, caput.  My teacher said that I must rather say ‘J’ai fini’ which means I have finished a task.

Since we moved to Switzerland in March 2011, learning French has been my number one priority.  It is a pity that I work in English because this slows my progress.  I don’t speak French to my colleagues because most of them are stressed out and don’t have the time to listen to me grapple for words and buffer like a slow YouTube video.

At work I’ve been learning indirectly by eavesdropping on conversations and reading English emails written by French people.  People often say, ‘thank you to do this’ and ‘thank you to do that’ and it turns out that this is a direct translation of the way one asks someone to do something politely.  Now I know that if I want someone to, for example, close the door, I should say ‘Merci de fermer la porte.  Thank you to close the door’.

One of the reasons why this language is so difficult is because the French generally don’t pronounce the last letter of words.  They don’t say words the way they are written so I can’t translate sounds into vocab that I recognize.  The bold and gruff pronunciation of the Germanic languages is ingrained into me.  French is more nasal.  My tongue is stubborn and it takes practice and discipline to say these new words and use the soft intonation that makes French so delicate and gentle.  When I speak, I feel I am tramping through a field of beautiful, freshly fallen snow.

The word for hot is ‘chaud’.  My instinct is to say ‘ch-ord’ but it is supposed to sound more like ‘shore’. ‘Pneu’ is tyre and it is pronounced like a sneeze.  Whenever I say it, I expect someone will pass me a tissue.  The most complex French word so far is eggs which is ‘les œufs’.  Initially I called them ‘lez oofs’ but you actually say it more like ‘lez ur’.  When a shop assistant told me muffins were in the same aisle as ‘lez ur’, I walked in circles but if they had said they were near ‘lez oofs’, I would have marched straight over.

I suspect the reason why French doesn’t yet roll off my tongue is because I overcomplicate things.  I think of words in English and try to translate them in my head.  Often I never even use these words in English anyway.   I was explaining to my teacher that I am hard on myself and expect myself to speak fluent French instantaneously.  I scratched my head and rolled my eyes to the ceiling to find the French equivalent of ‘instantaneously’.  Instantaneousment?  No.  Instantement?  No, that’s not it.  I stuttered and spluttered, desperate to release the words while my French teacher encouraged me like she was a cheerful midwife.  ‘Come on, push, keeping pushing.  You can do it!  Keep trying!  It’s coming!  You’re nearly there!’ In hindsight, why didn’t I just say ‘now’?  I want to speak fluent French now.  Maintenant.  It was as simple as that.

To learn French properly, you must be sheep dipped in it for an extended period.  There are too many English-speaking expats in the Geneva area and one can’t speak properly by only doing a lesson here and there.

I need to sign up for some kind of French boot camp that bans all English.  I need discipline.  I have discovered there are retreats in France where they immerse you in French 24/7.  They strictly forbid any other languages.  You can sign up for 2 weeks or more and apparently, after a while, it can feel like a concentration camp for language learning.  Super!  One of my friends went for a month and towards the end her brain was smoking.  She said that the French-only rule was rigidly applied.  Often, after lessons, the students looked left and right and then darted behind the bushes and whispered to each other in frantic English.

Initially I thought that learning French would be a great way to meet people and I hoped I could kill two birds with one stone.  I find French lessons are a write off in the friendship department.  At level B1 most of us express ourselves like the average 4 your old and after we’ve said ‘Bonjour, ça va’ and made a bit of small talk here and there, we sit in silence and stare at each other.  People have different mother tongues so, if we can’t communicate well in French, we can’t communicate at all.  Initially I assumed English was the number 1 language of the world and everyone spoke it, especially here in Europe.  Once I watched a YouTube clip of an English interview with a French celebrity who required a translator.  Someone put a comment below the video and said, ‘How the hell can people not speak English in this day and age?’

I have an announcement.  Learning French has helped me decide on a new career path.  I have reached the conclusion that working for others in the corporate world is the pits.  Over the next couple of months, I want to start my own business and teach English to foreigners.  I like English.  I like teaching.  I like foreigners.  So, why not?  And the most important thing is that I have been there, done that but with French.  I understand.  And also, in this day and age, how the hell can anyone not speak English?