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!!!



Missing English

May 31, 2012

I don’t miss much about the UK.  My 4 years there were mostly a strain and I call that period of my life ‘My Great Depression’.  I was glad to see the back of London.  Now that I live in a place with a better climate, I realize the extent to which the damp, grey British weather and the aloofness of Londoners influenced my moods.  My state of mind mirrored the weather.  On cloudy damp days, I tended to be down in the dumps but on sunnier summer days, I was chipper with a spring in my step.

I wish I had been more resistant to the power of my environment on my psyche but you honestly can’t help it.  The flatness creeps up on you like in that classic frog-in-hot-water analogy and, before you know it, a dull misery has twisted itself around you. You can’t shake it off because it is only when you leave London that you realize what is causing this blankness in the first place.

Imagine waking up and, most mornings, looking out the window and seeing a cheerless, iron-dull sky that is the colour of an old bruise.  I regularly walked to and from the station in cold, steam-bath type rain.  The comedian Doug Stanhope commented on the 2011 riots and was amazed that buildings burned so well in such a damp, mossy place.  He said he struggles to keep a cigarette alight for long in the UK.

I’m getting side-tracked with the negatives.  I actually wanted to talk about something good about the UK, something I miss about it.

One of the main things I miss about England is English.  These days, I am immersed in French and it is endlessly difficult to tune my brain into this delicate, sing-song language.  I appreciate the days when I could arrange something as straightforward as a car service without breaking out into a sweat.  In February, I was in the UK for two days for work and I felt I was back in my hood because I could speak English freely to shop assistants, taxi drivers and waiters.  Funnily enough most of these people were Romanian, Indian, Pakistani or Polish but at least they understood me.

Many people in England speak English badly which is surprising considering it is the home of the language.  Most people express their feelings using various derivatives of the eff word.  If someone is not part of the effing ‘innit’, ‘allo allo’ brigade, then they can be long-winded, verbose and a bit high falutin, particularly in emails.  Being succinct and crisp is a skill.  Winston Churchill once said, ‘I’m going to make a long speech because I’ve not had the time to prepare a short one’.

When I lived in London, there were certain London-isms that are not technically good English but have been absorbed into the day to day lingo.  During my 2 day stay in the UK in February, I heard them all repeatedly:

1.     I couldn’t be arsed

If you live in London, you hear this all the time.  People say, ‘I was exhausted this morning.  I couldn’t be arsed to get out of bed.’  I used this expression often so I would say things such as, ‘I couldn’t be arsed to trek to Tesco in that traffic’ or ‘I couldn’t be arsed to attend that boring meeting’.  Then someone told me that people are actually saying that they couldn’t be ASKED, not that they couldn’t be ARSED.  I didn’t know that.  All of a sudden, I stopped using that expression, maybe because subconsciously saying ‘arse’ was much more satisfying than saying ‘ask’.

2.     Are you alright?

When born and bred English people ask you how you are, they may say ‘Are you alright?’  Whenever someone said that to me, I jumped on the defensive, wondering if I looked washed out or harassed or had dark rings under my eyes.  I thought it was a euphemism for saying ‘You look like shit.  Are you ok?’

Actually ‘are you alright’ is a way of saying ‘how are you?’ and they would be taken aback if you said anything other than the perfunctory ‘fine thanks’.

3.     Hugely

This word is hugely popular.  People have replaced the word ‘very’ with ‘hugely’.  Someone may say, ‘Thanks for your email.  It was hugely encouraging’.    I even saw it used in the Daily Mail and I found it hugely irritating but then again, that newspaper is hardly the bastion of literary journalism.

4.     I hope this email finds you well.

This expression grates my inner carrot.  In a work performance appraisal, I was once criticized for being too direct in emails and ‘not respecting the British culture’.  I asked for suggestions on ways to change and was told I should fluff up my correspondence more and lead in with ‘I hope this email finds you well’.  I used to sift through endless emails and it was quicker if they were direct but polite.  If I want to chat about someone’s health, I will ring them.  No one else seems to froth at the mouth over this vacuous expression.  So maybe it’s just me.

As you know, I enjoy writing.  I love reading too.  During this period of learning French, I have a new appreciation for languages and communication and I have become more interested in the subtleties and nuances of my mother tongue.  I have new sympathy for the voiceless in the world, for those who feel powerless to make themselves heard.  I now appreciate that one of the greatest privileges in life is to express yourself and to communicate in a way that makes yourself understood.