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And then there are the other days…

Posted: 19th Oct 2016

Sometimes, life in a new country isn’t all fresh baguettes and fromage. Yesterday, the best part of the day was the sunrise. From there on out it felt like one disaster after another. Some days it is easier to laugh at the awkwardness and the missteps, and other days you just want to curl up in a ball and cry. Today the thing that seemed to trip me up all day long was my inadequate pronunciation of the French language.

It started with a very introvert morning, as it was all I could do to get myself to leave the apartment. I only did finally go because it was a gorgeous sunny day and I couldn’t imagine staying inside all day. The other reason I needed to get out was for coffee: I was all out. I had skipped the weekly morning gathering of Americans and other English-speaking locals at a coffee shop as I just didn’t think I could muster the energy for the conversations. (Yes, I realise the irony here: I was out of coffee and I skipped the coffee meeting. If you are any sort of introvert, you will understand.)

The Nespresso experience

Our apartment was furnished with a Nespresso machine, and the first batch of non-Nespresso brand pods I bought at our local market had caused the machine to gag, splutter, and spit them out, so I felt as if I needed to buy the branded pods. I headed for the velos to ride to the Nespresso store. I had a really good bicycle and enjoyed the ride, as I knew I would. The river, the light, the warm air, the gentle exercise: all helped my mood immensely so that I was ready to tackle the Nespresso store. I have been there before and know I need to dress up slightly, and that I will be treated gently but slightly disdainfully. I had made rookie errors the first time I went in, but now I know the drill, so I wasn’t too worried.

I got to the right desk to ask for three boxes of my chosen coffee pods. Alors! She asked me if I was a member of their coffee club, and when I said no, she asked me if would like to join. As I started to explain (all this is in French so far) that my French wasn’t too great,  she promptly interrupted me and asked everything again in English, so in English I asked her to explain about the club. To her credit, her first question was to ask me if I have a French bank account. And since we do not (yet), she just pouted in the lovely French way and that was that. You may think this is rude, but to me it saved us both the pain of her explaining all the benefits of the club only to discover I couldn’t sign up for it without a French bank account.

She then offered me the free cup of espresso which by then I was pretty desperate for. Whilst waiting to be served, I checked out the different coffees and looked for one similar but different to the one I usually buy to see if I could broaden my coffee tastes.  I asked for the one I thought was close, and after being served and feeling brave, I asked in my pigeon French if it was similar to the one I had purchased. Again the pout, and a lengthy explanation in French about how it was NOT similar, that the one I was served was for small brewing (like an espresso shot) whilst the one I purchased is for brewing slightly larger cup sizes. At least I think that is what he said, piecing together my serving size, a revised analysis of the  diagrams on the wall for each of the coffee types, and some understanding of the words he said. Sigh.

The newsagent encounter

I rode back towards home to meet Pete for lunch. On the way, I remembered that I needed to buy some more metro ticket books, and that you can buy them at newsagents.  I had noticed a newsagent in our neighbourhood, and thought I’ll give that one a go before I meet Pete, and I can also pick up a copy of Glamour or Elle or Marie-Claire to ‘practice my French’, and of course to see some examples of French women’s fashion style which I enjoy and figured I could also benefit from learning some style tips, to be honest.  

I walked in the newsagents store and remembered to greet the woman behind the counter with ‘Bonjour’ straightaway, as is the polite custom to do, and started looking for the usual sea of women’s magazines. And of course the proprietor asked me if she could help me find anything in particular, and I mumbled merci, mais non, and felt annoyed at myself that I didn’t know the words for ‘I am just browsing’, or ‘where are the women’s magazines’….I finally selected a magazine, and at the counter asked for ‘deux carnet, s.v.p.’ (2 Metro ticket books, please), and she was very thorough and asked me if I really meant pour le TCL (oui) and then she took out the ticket packets and showed them to me (oui, c’est ça, I said), and she repeated ‘deux?’ and I said oui, and by then there was a queue forming. For no reason at all, I was now completely nervous and flustered. My wallet had fallen deep into my bag, so I had to pull everything out and when I pulled out the bills to pay for my tickets and magazine, naturally the coins fell out as well and rolled all over the floor. And of course all this time the proprietor has been so kind and I just felt like a right idiot, certain the thousands of people standing in line were staring and laughing at me. But of course when I looked up from picking my change off the floor, there were really only a couple of people in line and they were not looking at me. But I was still shaking, and feeling so frustrated about my inability to communicate with confidence.

Boulangerie incident

I took a deep breath and crossed the street to meet Pete at our local boulangerie. The last time we were there, I hadn’t been able to pronounce the name of the sandwich I liked very effectively, so I had been practicing how to say it. This time I confidently spoke the name of the sandwich and the lady helping us looked at me like I was speaking Martian. I said it again to a blank stare, Pete repeated it, and by then the one lady there who knows me and helps me with my pronunciation when I pick up baguettes in the afternoon came over, and I said the name to her, and she smiled and said oh oui! And she repeated it again to the lady and I swear it sounded IDENTICAL to my pronunciation, but the new lady said, Oh Oui! with an undertone of: NOW I GET IT, now that a French person who knows how to speak says it properly. Ugh. So I repeated the name once again to the nice lady and she smiled and said ‘Très bon’, and so I thought well, she is awfully nice, but I still feel like an idiot, because this time there really IS a long queue of students looking at me and Pete, and sigh, I just want to crawl in a hole.

Language lessons

After all this, it was still only lunchtime and we had 2 hours of language lessons conducted entirely in French ahead of us in the evening. For the first time in three weeks, neither Pete nor I could understand the instructor. I honestly felt as if HE was the one speaking Martian this time. I wasn’t sure if maybe I was having a stroke as none of the words coming out of his mouth meant anything to me, and usually I can puzzle my way through most things, particularly in our lessons. I was ready to give up after the first half hour, but then I asked the woman sitting next to me – who is English – if she had any idea what our instructor had just asked us to do, and she also had no idea. For some reason that helped me feel a little better – at least it wasn’t just me having a stroke – but still. We struggled through the rest of the lesson, and mentally limped home afterwards, feeling pretty discouraged.  

So even though we got to come home to a frittata made from local fresh ingredients, and lovely local wine, sometimes you also want to feel competent, comfortable and at home where you are, and yesterday was just not that day. 

Hopefully today will be a bit better, and the intermittent rain showers will cleanse the atmosphere and wash away the frustrations of yesterday. Tonight we are meeting friends from France and Spain, who also speak English well (!) and I’m sure their good company will give us energy and remind us again of the delights of living abroad and getting to spend time with a wonderful variety of really interesting people. At the very least I hope they do the ordering at the restaurant. I’m not sure what will happen the next time I try to speak French!

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