In keeping with my This American Life obsession, we're starting a new news feature here on WVUM.org. "As Told By" will feature first person narratives on...well, on anything. Our first story comes from newscaster Sarah Elder. Read on for her trip to France and the difficulties - and sometimes, the humor - of the language barrier.
In the summer of 2004, I spent all my free time planning a trip for two to Paris in August. Mon amie, Linds, and I were taking a vacation before the school year. Linds let me take the driver’s seat as I booked hostels, discriminating against the ones without camera surveillance, and targeted the best spots to exchange our dollars so our wallets wouldn’t be as light as the exchange rate merited. I tried to think of everything from buying passport holders to electrical adapters. This trip had to go smoothly. It was my first time out of U.S. All the preparation wasn’t just for the vacation, it was for an entire year of my life. Linds and I were classmates, and while Paris was to be a vacation, our junior year abroad in Bordeaux immediately followed.
Once in Paris, our days were spent in wonderment of the city. It wasn’t overwhelming in the way big cities can feel rushed and over seasoned with sidewalks and traffic lights. I felt willingly exonerated by a whole new parade of stimuli. Street fashion was mute and monochromatic, there was a boulangerie on each corner, and patrons seated on a café terrace bellowed the occasional, “Baaaaah, oui!” as we walked by. My dreams at night went from forgettable and bland to something out of a New York techni-color theatric show. Marked by a moonlit twilight, everything was slightly leaning on its side, moving left to right on a projection screen, each consecutive scene as exciting as the last. We met backpackers from Canada, nomads from Italy, and a couple that had met and fallen in love within the week.
It was all so memorable and delicious. I credited it to our great preparation. The city romanced me, insofar as I wanted it to remain within me always. Some students were there for the good times, cheap wine and techno nights. For me, though, I desired to create relationships - long lasting ones so in the future, France would always be a place to visit and feel welcome.
When I got to Bordeaux to begin my academic year, I thought my love affair would continue. I would be fluent in mere months and I would be dating un mec who wore scarves and drove a scooter. Yet only two weeks in, cultural fissures emerged and cracked my confidence.
I stumbled with the language. When buying a train ticket the woman at the counter asked me where I was from. Instead of saying I was American, my accent distorted the word to sound like I said I was a mannequin. It took me extra time to do everything, from picking up a package at the post office to grocery shopping. People behind me in line at Casino grocery would let out “Ughhh, la, la”s as I leafed through my French-English dictionary.
Taking the tram to school one morning, Linds and I were quietly whispering. She thought she recognized one of the girls standing nearby from one of her integrated courses. We were debating whether she should say hi. Before we could get to the part of the fantasy where we became great friends and she attended all of our parties for the rest of the year, the conductor pulled the emergency brake. Neither of us liked the thought of holding a germ-ridden pole on our commute to school, so we went flying on top of the familiar student and her likewise dainty gal pal. Getting to our feet, we sounded like two oversized donkeys cramped in a small room. The little Brigitte Bardots smoothed out their dresses while two suits helped them get back to vertical. After our incoherent apologies, we could tell from their glares that they would not be inviting us to a café for espresso and people-watching.
I was stung by embarrassment. I lacked grace and my surroundings felt tepid at best. I would try to start conversations with strangers, but they were fleeting encounters. As infuriating as my battle with my language aptitude was, this was a goal I was stubborn enough to trample toward, whether it was figuratively or in a tram.
One night while I was out with a few friends, my friend ran into a guy she’d been out with on a couple dates. He was an artist, and he invited us to his studio with a few of his pals. At the Frenchman’s house we sipped red wine out of juice glasses and watched television while our host pinched hashish into rolling paper. The guest on the show was wearing a toque for the sketch and cracked a joke in the middle of the interview. Everyone in the room started laughing - except me. The issue wasn’t that I didn’t understand the words, but it was the punch line. It was a cultural reference I wasn’t familiar with. The Frenchman turned to me.
“Oh, your French is not very good. You not understand?” he said.
His condescension angered me. So did his grammar.
I really needed to lighten up, take my lumps, go with the flow more. Problem was, it took awhile for the realization to occur to me.
One Wednesday in a quiet study hall, the lesson finally came through. I was sitting with my French-English conversation partner, Yann, having a talk about cuisine and the finer things of Americana vs. Français dining life.
“Il y a moins des préservatifs dans la cuisine française.” –There are fewer preservatives in French cuisine.
Yann shook his head. “Non, non.”
I thought I was being generous, but Yann disagreed. So we continued to go back and forth.
“Sarah, that is not what it means!” Just a notch below a whisper Yann leaned in.
“Préservatif en français is…is condom.”
I looked around and dozens of students averted their stares from our corner. The scarf around my neck felt like a heating pad. Did I really just say the French don’t put as many condoms in their food as Americans? Yann got a good chuckle out of my family planning observation.
I realized my time abroad would turn out to be nothing more than a collection of my individual memories, and being so hard on myself only meant sabotaging a pinnacle of my youth. I stopped worrying so much after that, and my concerns were quelled as I did end up making some great friends.
Granted, the year did continue with small catastrophes. Friends traveling in conspicuous groups, going in and out of states of inebriation, got their wallets stolen. Middle-aged Bordelais women would stare down their noses at me every time I spit while jogging or mixed the cheese course with the salad at dinner. And finally, having enough with the overgrown, fluffy curls on my head, I went to get the coiffure.
“Oh snap! You look like a european chia pet. That is going to take you at least a year to grow out,” said my friend as I walked in the house later.
She was right. I paid 90 euros for a mullet so outdated that you could have clothed me in a pink vinyl suit and called me Jem. Still, I flashed her a smirk; the kind that meant I had a secret, a good one. I leaned back in the chair and fingered the bobby pins that kept my blunt locks of hair restrained. I look back on that year as a time I became more relaxed, more okay with managing what I could and not worrying about much else. This change, letting go of some control, was a turn around that would remain with me much longer than a year. To this day I am not sure if my friend understood why I didn’t dwell on my mullet-esque do, but it isn’t the kind of wisdom I can share. It has to be experienced.