While I was in London, my latest Bonjour Paris column hit the virtual newsstand, entitled "Lost in Translation", where I talk about some of my frustrations with the language barrier. After I submitted this article, I was talking with La Page Française about the language challenges and she described it perfectly as there being basically two ways or levels of speaking French: communicating which is what you do to survive; and then there is being able to express yourself, which is a whole other level. What I'm doing now is communicating, and overall doing a fair job at it. But it's going to be a long, long time until I'm really able to express myself well in French with any real flair.
How do you make a life for yourself in a country where you are not fluent in the language? That’s the challenge I’m facing more and more each day here in Paris.
I do speak French. Well, I speak SOME French, enough to deal with shopping and asking directions, and to observe the niceties of greeting people. I’ve had virtually no problems getting around through basic daily life with my current French skills. And I’ve been told my accent is excellent, which probably accounts for why so few French people have felt compelled to switch over to English after I say something in French.
But after a while, things happen that require better language skills than, “I’ll take some of THAT, please” (while gesturing to what you want) and “Is the Métro to the left or the right?”
Last week, I was invited to join my future landlords for their Thanksgiving dinner. She’s American, a New Yorker, and he’s French, and she asked me to come to dinner when she learned I was new in town and had no plans for the holiday. The other guests consisted of their friends and family, a mix of French and American. Everyone there spoke English but not all were fluent, so the conversation was very often in rapid-fire French. There was no way I could keep up with all of it, so instead I just decided to observe and see how much I could understand. Dinner was delicious and everyone was very nice, and I wasn’t totally left out of things because some of the talk was in English. But clearly, my dinner party conversation skills are going to need a lot of work if I end up spending time with many French people!
Then there’s television. If I didn’t have access to CNN International and the BBC, plus my internet news feeds from the New York Times, I wouldn’t know what was going on in the world, because when I watch French news I’m only able to pick up maybe every fifth word, and that’s on a good day. And watching reruns of “Will and Grace” just doesn’t feel the same when they’ve been dubbed over en français and pronounced “Weel et Grahs”. At least there is BBCPrime, which broadcasts a variety of British programs ranging from decorating and gardening shows to soaps, comedies and medical dramas, so I can get some entertainment in English.
But today, I got something in the mail that has me scratching my head. It’s from UPS and appears to be some sort of customs form or invoice related to the very costly box of stuff I shipped just before I came over to Paris. When the box arrived, there were additional customs charges payable on the spot at 26,50 Euros, and I thought that was the end of it. Until I got this form, which is all in French and a complete mystery to me, as it seems to be telling me there’s now a VAT tax charge of 11,00 Euros. I was able to make out one sentence that says it’s NOT an invoice, but is an invoice on its way? Do I have to call someone or go somewhere to pay it, or will it be charged to my credit card on file with UPS in America? I have absolutely no idea. On the back is an entire page of customs gibberish, but even with a French dictionary, no where can I really make out why I got this document or what I’m supposed to do with it.
I located a phone number on the bottom of the page, and called it. All I got was a message (in French) stating that the customer service number had changed (I understood THAT much) and giving the new number in super-fast French that I never did understand despite three additional calls to listen to the recording again.
Next, I decided to try the UPS website, and thank goodness their website for France is available in both French and English! I was able to locate the correct customer service number but also then realized it’s a toll number to the tune of 12 centimes per minute, so I decided to try emailing UPS with my question about the document, and I’m now awaiting a reply. I’m hoping I don’t have to call them, as I will then have to try to explain to them in French what I need and will have to hope there is an English-speaking customer service person that can help me.
I can see that fluency in French is going to be necessary for me to function well here. It’s also going to be a long time in coming. It’s sinking in: I am now an immigrant. This is but the tip of the proverbial iceberg for me, in terms of frustrations with living in a country where my language skills need work. Patience will never be more of a virtue than while I’m living in France; that is becoming abundantly clear. My American drive to get things done quickly and efficiently will be sorely tested, as the French have their own way of doing things that is often neither quick nor efficient, whether I like it or not.
But I’m in their country. I chose to just barge in here, unannounced and uninvited; therefore I have to play by their rules (provided I can even figure out the rules!)
And while I’m sometimes frustrated with not being able to communicate fully, I do love hearing the language spoken everywhere I go, and I love speaking it, the way it flows off the tongue so beautifully. Even after just these few short weeks, it is already beginning to sound odd to me to be walking down the street and suddenly hear some Americans or Brits chatting away together.
When I was a mere tourist on prior trips to Paris and heard some fellow Americans speaking, I might have been tempted to say hello or even join in the conversation. Now I just say nothing and let them think I’m French, and when I’m out and about I always start by trying to speak French first. After all, I don’t want to be mistaken for just another tourist anymore. I LIVE here now!
And I know I’ve succeeded in blending in with the locals when tourists attempt to ask me for directions in their own halting French… and when I actually start to respond to them IN FRENCH. Then I remember who I am, take pity on them and watch the relief on their faces when I revert back to English (“Oh, you’re American! Thank God!”) This happened to me several times yesterday while wandering around Père Lachaise cemetery on a rare sunny November day, where I encountered several people all searching for the same thing—Jim Morrison, of course—and all of us feeling totally lost.
Not just in the cemetery, but in the language barriers, too. Because let’s face it, nothing is more unnerving that not being able to communicate. N’est-ce pas?
Suffice to say, it was nice to be in London for two days where my biggest language problem was understanding that in England, chips are fries and crisps are chips, and it's best to know which you want with your burger before you order.