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.