Monday, October 11, 2010

La Mer

Another Monday Memories. Publishing articles that I wrote one year ago at this very same time are so interesting for me. Sometimes, they just bring back memories of discovery, sometimes they open my eyes to the progress that I've made. And that is a good thing. I'm back in school again. And now...this time.... I can actually understand what the teacher is saying! What I'm doing is no different than what millions of people have done...most under far more difficult circumstances. But now, I can truly empathize. 

This morning I came downstairs to find my mess from the night before. It was a pile of papers, books, notes, frustration and anger…. and a couple of half-empty wine glasses. The night before, Simon and I had been cooking, talking and studying (me studying and whining, him drilling me and making an attempt to teach me the correct usage of pronouns) and finally the fatigue got to me and I had to quit and go to bed. I moaned about all I had to do the next morning and all I had not accomplished that night because of my studying. Simon, my young British friend who is staying with me until he finds a new apartment, told me he would be my ghostwriter and write my article for me…. as if he were me. I nodded an affirmation, which was all I could produce at that moment.

This morning I read the article. It was good. Many of the things I’ve said before but he doesn’t know that. So I’m going to rewrite it a little. But in fact, this is Simon’s article. He knows, first hand, exactly what I’m going through and just reading it was a little spooky.

In class the other day, as I was trying to discuss groundwater pollution in Wisconsin  (don’t even ask me why), I was unable to pull up the words for a point I was trying to make. I mean why would I know the word for pesticides anyway? Or seeping? My teacher told me to keep on going and traverse the sentence in another way…whatever way I could manage to get my point across.  I did and though everyone understood me, I think I heard a tiny snore by the time I reached the end of my convoluted story. But the fact is, it worked.

I was at a party Friday night with a group of French people and the woman next to me asked me a question. I tried to answer but couldn’t find the words…so I did what my teacher told me and tried to get to the point in another way. Finally, after a lot of pain and agony, most of it hers, she interrupted me and said to me “how long have you been in France anyway?” She knew the answer because I’ve known her since the beginning. It was a little dig…I think…. and it shut me up completely. And later, I went home and cried.

The truth is, spending all this time in school and the evenings with textbooks working through the exercises…. I am probably starting to know a little bit about the French language. Enough, sometimes, to be able to express what I mean. Enough to understand many of the sounds. But for every little bit I understand, I realize how much more there is to learn…. like someone who has dreamed forever about swimming the English channel and who, having set out, now realizes how much distance REALLY lies ahead. How every stroke involves an effort, and act of strength, and how quickly the fatigue promises to set into the muscles.

The question “how long have you been here anyway?” The answer is 10 months. TEN MONTHS! And me still floundering like a fish out of water. I should be speaking better after all this time. What have I been doing wrong? Progress report: not good.

Her question not only made me feel ridiculous, it made me feel bad for bringing her to the end of her patience. I can’t blame her entirely. To be honest, how much patience would I have with a foreigner who, not speaking English, insists on producing the facts of her little life in such a painful manner when all I was doing was being nice? What had been this woman’s act of courteousness, a triviality of dinner conversation, was for me a review of the present, past and imperfect tenses, expressions of time and place…. added to the problem of using one’s voice as if it were an altogether different instrument, straining to produce sounds that it has never uttered before…”eu”….”ieu”…”uis”…. ellE…. She asked a simple question and I reacted as if I were trying to work out the square root of the year we are in, or solve some bushy white-eye browed mathematician’s formula!

Someone told me (it was Simon) that George Orwell  wrote that the life of an ex-patriot is a permanent struggle against being laughed at. He was right. And I don’t mind being laughed at…sometimes. But sometimes I’m just too tender to take it. To come to live in a foreign country is to volunteer yourself for an experience that is fundamentally different from the one you knew and to try to adopt a system of signs and sounds that people around you have held unquestioningly from birth. For whom nothing could ever have been different but which for you is completely…foreign.

The French language has logic of its own, which is not our logic. When the French say ‘je t’ai envoyé or ‘je te l’ai dèja ennvoyé, they are not saying ‘I sent you a letter’ or ‘I’ve already sent you a letter’. What they are saying is ‘I you have sent a letter’ or I you it have already sent’. Geez, what planet am I on? And to add to the mess, the language has irregularities and incongruities that even the French don’t understand!

I’ve started to grasp a little about how I’ll eventually manage this language…manage being the key word here. I’m learning what’s different about it…it’s rules and regulations…its bizarre and confounded system of genders (la soleil, le lune). And how the distinction between masculine and feminine is not just a cosmetic nicety but something that has rules and specifications of it’s own…. gender agreement, the preceding direct object….ya da, ya da, ya da.

I come back to this every evening. To how much I don’t know about something so vast and unknowable. I write often about the moments of joy…like walking out of my new apartment to see an incredible evening sky as the setting sun lights up this little ochre town. But to be honest, the joy and the pain have been in equal measures.

So I’m swimming and starting to feel the pull of the tide…the hardship settling into my body.  I can see I’ve not traveled far from the shore and I certainly can’t even make out the opposite shore. I could turn back.  But I can’t. It’s going to have to be long, slow strokes and good breathing techniques that get me there. And maybe a few provisions from the lifeboat that always seems to travel beside me.



  1. Hi Delana
    You are doing great I must say, you've been in France only for 10 MONTHS and understand others and make yourself understood. That's just great!!!Learning the Foreign Language is not an easy process, tell me about it. I still study English everyday after 20 years of living in English speaking countires. Now, I enrolled my French Class today and starting in 2 days.(smile) What was I thinking?

    Julie xx

  2. That dig was unkind and uncalled for.
    The 'uppity' French can be a real pain.
    The elderly people who were my first neighbours had plenty of patience with me, would help me out and consoled me with
    'Well, it's not an easy language...I remember at school...'

  3. The comment by the lady at the dinner party reminded me of the scene from Emma by Jane Austen, of course, maybe it is only in the movie. It's the scene where they are having a picnic and picking strawberries, and Emma tells Miss Bates that she will be limited to only two words. It's a slight she thinks the old spinster won't understand, but she does and it injures her. Subtle, yet painful. But that was last year, right? Things are better now.

  4. I think you are too hard on yourself - ten months is no time at all and you will find a few years on that simply reading the paper and watching French telly will help so much to be absorped.


  5. Of course that was last year....much has changed and one learns to roll with the punches. Or fight back. When my French friends laugh at my accent or mistakes, I simply remind them, in French, that when they are in Times Square, with the blinding lights all around them, with buildings 60 or 70 stories tall, surrounded by 8 million people speaking every language on the planet, then they will be "chez moi", and it will be me who will be laughing.

  6. Bonjour Delana~ I can imagine how frustrating it must be at times, but you have left the shore, you are paddling and of course the sea will get a bit choppy ~ you have come too far to turn back! and have achieved more than I ~ who after learning french for 3 years can only say Bonjour & ca va!!

  7. I feel your pain. Just tonight I Facebook chatted with my friend in Dijon. I use a combination of google translate, dusty memory and poor grammar to get my point across. It must be torture for him, but he's kind. He is the person who taught me well enough in 1987 that I was close to fluent (dreaming in French, no longer doing that thing where you listen, translate into English, formulate your English response then translate back into French to respond). I'm glad he's still patient.

    How is it a year on for you?

  8. I had never heard that George Orwell expression before; "the life of an ex-patriot is a permanent struggle against being laughed at" but my oh my it is so very true!
    You're doing great! I'm doing great! We're doing great (I'm going to keep telling myself that everyday)

  9. Thanks for the encouragement Julie. If you can learn two languages, I can at least learn one! Good luck with the French!

    Fly-uppity anybody can be a royal pain! And, in truth, I have found many lovely people willing to help me. And I'm also no longer afraid to ask. I think people like that.

    Paulita-yes, things are so much easier now. I even heard a couple talking on the street today, and I understood their whole conversation!

    Dianne- Yes, but you're trying to learn it in a non-french speaking country. Now THAT is really tough. Bon courage!

    FF-now it's 1 year and 10 months. Et ça va mieux. But hat made me think I was going to learn the language in a couple of months?!?

    Holly-That's a great image! I will remember that if I ever get another dig!

    Lisa-I'm waiting for that dream in French. I did dream in French once...but I didn't understand it when I woke up.

    Sara-We ARE doing great....aren't we? :)


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