I told myself to take a deep breath.
In French I tried to say “I would like it without . . . .”
“I would like it without . . .”
What is the goddamn word for nuts? I stood there mouth open, waving my hand around in a circle in mid-air, my usual pose when searching for a word. After a few seconds the clerk moved away and handed me my Sunday with a smile. I left the store and tried to eat around the damn peanuts but they were one with the caramel, and then just ended up throwing the whole thing out. Due to the local customs, not much else was open on Sunday in town. Hungry, I boarded the tram and went home.
May 1st 2011. I had just turned thirty six years old. And I had just walked into a McDonalds, spent four U.S. dollars for soft serve ice cream, failed to express a basic concept even six year olds can articulate, and went home hungry. And so it goes, learning french in France. Ma vie en rose. Very glamorous indeed.
Deciding to live in a foreign country in order to learn the language is like willingly signing up for brain damage. That person you were in your native tongue is gone now, and in her place is the special kid with headgear from My So-Called Life. Your clever wit, deep political philosophies, nuances of thought, sarcasm and spunk – inaccessible. Whoever you can be with the vocabulary of a three year old, that’s who you are now. And that’s who I was in Montpellier, France.
Small tasks confounded me. Getting money out of an ATM. Joining a wireless network with your iPhone. Ordering a coffee. Buying a train ticket. I had seriously underestimated the time and effort involved in learning the language of Napoleon and Rousseau. People streamed past me in endless conversations and I recognized words here and there, but it was like looking into a store window at pretty shiny things you cannot afford.
I started to look at life as a series of timed trial stages. If I could get through each one all right, then maybe I could reach the finish line of French Fluency.
Stage 1: The Grocery Story
As all language students know, the most important words to learn are the words that make sure you will get to eat. So I wrote down some notes and took my first trip to the grocery story. The store was named Casino, and I was feeling lucky.
All the same foods as America, easy to follow the visuals if I couldn’t read the packaging. “Bio” means “Organic.” Even managed to find some lentils (I miss you, India!) and some soy milk (I miss you, Thailand!). I can reach and point and mumble, so I end up with a decent sack of groceries.
Then I wander around. I note two things. First, there is an enormous aisle devoted entirely to cheese. Figures. Second, there’s another fairly large aisle devoted to sex toys. They sell sex toys here. In a freaking grocery story. Edible panties. Anal beads. I found that I could read the French on those packages with astonishing clarity.
Kinda weird, but so far, so good. Stage one completed!
Stage 2: The Doctor’s Office – Success!
By the first week in Montpellier I was inexplicably light-headed and dizzy and convinced I was dying of anemia, malaria or the Dehli super bug. So I emailed my travel health insurance provider to try to find an English speaking doctor in my neighborhood. I found one and booked an appointment. Feeling vulnerable, I tried to write down the words for “anemia” and “check my blood iron levels”. I went to see the doctor and sure enough he spoke not a word of English. After much wild gesticulating I managed to get a blood test. At the end of the visit, the doctor joked that he should charge me extra for the translation services. I didn’t think that was funny. Fuck you, asshole French doctor. I eagerly awaited the test results to see what I was dying of. Turns out, my blood was normal. I had a vertigo presenting migraine. Not anemic, just dizzy from trying to speak French all the time.
Interlude: The Cell Phone Shop Part I
I went in to buy a SIM card and some minutes. They took one look at me and started speaking English. Okay. I spent 40 Euro and they gave me a code and a number to call to activate the minutes, plus taught me how to pronounce the name of my new cell phone carrier. But when I got home & called the number to input my minutes, the instructions were in French. Is everything in French in this country?
Stage 3: Walking Around Town – Success!
Walking around town is fun and safe, because you don’t have to talk to anyone. Montpellier has alot of old world charm. Cavernous narrow streets capped off with ancient looking arches; dark alleys that open up into secret sunny squares with tons of people drinking roses; outdoor streets with floors tiled like nice bathrooms; ornate iron doorways big enough for giants that lead to secrete sunny inner courtyards; medieval vaulted arches repurposed inside contemporary buildings; Gothic churches turned into art galleries. Montpellier was cool! I listened in on people’s conversations and read the building plaques and inscriptions. Easy peasy.
Stage 4: Class Trip – Fail!
Turns out French is not the only thing spoken here. There’s also Occitan, which is a cousin of Catalan, and what some locals feel is the proper language of the region and what everyone should really be speaking. At least according to our school tour guide, Jean-Paul. Jean-Paul is an Occitan seperatist. He wears the Occitan flag on his tee-shirt at all times. Jean-Paul speaks French (or as he calls it, Parisian), Occitan, Spanish, Italian, Catalan, English and a little German too. Kind of makes you feel like a mono-lingual punk. Jean Paul took us to a preserved medieval village called St. Guilham, and he spoke his mixture of French-Occitan-English very fast and non-stop for the whole trip. We learned the words for monastery and pilgrimage and cousin on your mother’s side.I got something about St. Guilham being a cousin on his mother’s side of Charlemagne, and also a great military hero in his own right. But he had a mid-life crisis, renounced all his wealth, and opened a monastery in this town, and that’s how the town got it’s name. Or maybe he was famous for his tapenade? Oh well.
Stage 5: Bike Shop – Fail! Then Success!
French words are so formal sometimes. “Terminate” for “finish”. “Society” for “company”. “Instructor of the rules for safety in a boat” instead of “boat safety instructor”. The biking jargon was no exception. I had to prep thoroughly for this one. I found out the French word for touring bike. I figured out the bikes were measured in centimeters not inches and found my size. I even wrote down some phrases for what I wanted: long body, stable with weight on it, fenders for rain, in line shifting. Got to the shop and dropped that I was going on a “randonee”. The clerk stopped me and asked if I wanted to speak English. I caved and said yes.
Chris at the bike shop was from Los Angeles. He moved over here to be with his French girlfriend/now wife. He sold me a German bike with a spec sheet all in German. We spoke Cali English as we chose some accessories to trick the thing out. I asked him how much French he did in class before he just gave up and lived. He said he stopped at level 3 of 6. And he even had a good accent! I left with a dope bike and more hope than I’d had since the 2008 Obama campaign.
Interlude: The Cell Phone Shop Part II
I went back to the cell phone shop to ask for some help putting in my minutes. I waited behind some giggling teens buying a Samsung Galaxy. You didn’t have to know much french to tell they were talking about facebook and boys. When I got to the counter the man spoke french with a horrible spanish accent. He insisted he could speak english to me so we went on that way, but I couldn’t understand his english very well either so we went back to french. He checked my phone and informed me that the minutes were already on there. Oh well.
Stage 6: Hair Salon – Tie!
This was the hardest and highest stakes stage yet. Trying to explain how my hair curl pattern is “4B” and I need something “hydrating” and I have “split ends” so I will need a “trim”, but I wear my hear in a “natural” “afro” so don’t cut too much “off”. I don’t know how much of that I said right or they caught. I do know I walked out hundreds of Euro poorer and with straight hair.
Stage 7: Nice Restaurant – Success due to Forfeit!
“Can I have some butter?” I ask. “Can I have some butter?” the waiter singsongs back. Is this guy making fun of my accent? I will kill him. I will kill all of France. Once you get tired of mocking my French, you can get back to bending over for the Germans, wise guy. None of the foods on the menu were coming up on my iPhone French-English dictionary. I went for the lasagna. That’s why I eat a lot of Italian food here in France.
Stage 8: In the Park – Called for Rain!
Now I think that guy was smiling at me and trying to talk to me. He definitely said something flirtatious to me. What do I do? Just smile and nod? Okay, I smile and nod. He says something more. Did he just call me a small fish? I dunno. I put my head back in my book and hope he walks away soon. Much easier to flirt with the French instructors than try to deal with the general public.
Stage 9: Saturday Market – Success!
Markets here in Montpellier are wonderful. Local, organic, artisan. Cheese cases to drool over. Good looking meats that almost tempt me back to the dark side. Delicious sweets. Gigantic fresh looking vegetables. Everyone has got their canvas bag, the market sits under ancient medieval archways, people play this weird local version of bocce ball nearby, and the atmosphere is festive.
I walk up to the dried fruits and nuts guy. He’s black so I’m hopeful he will be nice. I have been tagging along with my French host letting her do all the talking but now I am going to buy something on my own! “100 grams of cashews, if you please!”. He gives me a humorous look and doles them out. I pay. As I’m walking away I realize 100 grams is not very much, about a handful. Okay, well he could have tipped me off to that, but at least I got my nuts. Will put that in the win column!
Interlude: The Cell Phone Shop Part III
I was out of minutes. I went back to the terrifying cellular shop one last time. The guy kept telling me to go somewhere else to find out what my rates were for SMS. I said, if I can refill minutes here, why don’t you know the rates for what I am refilling? He insisted he didn’t. I asked him then could he tell me when my minutes would expire? He gave me a 30 page booklet that had one page with my precise contract terms, including SMS rates. I said thanks and ripped the page out that I needed and went to leave the shop. He tried to call me back to take the whole booklet. I said, no thanks, I only needed that one page. He asked what he was supposed to do with the rest of it. I said, throw it out the trash that is right there, it’s not a big deal. He said it was in fact a big deal. I walked away pissed at his snark but very pleased the whole thing had gone down entirely in french.
The Final Stage: Sunday Brunch – Acceptance
Trying out a cheap brasserie frequented by intimidating looking locals. I could now read enough of this menu to know that I didn’t want raw beef, baby lamb, a tiny chicken, stinky cheese or red wine. Thank God there was some Italian food on the menu!
“The ravioli with pesto, how big is it?” I ask.
The waiter shrugs and says, “I don’t know”.
“I’m not very hungry,” I add.
“It’s not enormous,” he says.
We were talking like grown ups, I suddenly realized. Sitting at the foot of this amazing church with a bright blue sky and a snarky French waiter hovering above me, I did not feel like myself, but I felt less special needs, good even; good enough.
Maybe I didn’t need too many words after all. No one knew me here anyway, or who I used to be when I could say more intelligent things besides “can I get the dressing on the side”? Stripped of my social personae, I decided just to enjoy my food, the sunshine, and the silence.