Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Merci Madame, Gracias Too

Living every day in a cocoon of French can get old. It is tempting to remove yourself, to be tired and frustrated by it. But that only creates a downward spiral into no French, no communication, loneliness and isolation.

Grocery store French just doesn't cut it anymore; isn't enough of a connection to people. And when you get out of practice, like on school holidays, it can seem even more difficult to break through and say what you want to say. As Michele always said, 'the more you know, the less you think you know'. And that's a good thing. Really. Because it makes you want to learn more, keep going, express yourself more fully.

It is also frustrating as hell.

I could carry on all day long with the basics. And I would sound like a five year-old. Something like, 'I like there....Sorry, I have tired today.....Too far away words in my head....It makes cold and I like not it.' You get the idea. I joke, but I wonder how I must sound to someone who really does speak French and how on earth they keep from laughing. Which they don't ever do.
They always happily encourage and nod and move me along the path of conversation, holding my hand.

It's usually just when you're feeling like closing your ears and mind to the language that someone helps you open them again.

And so it was for me last week at the Middlest's football practice. I felt closed off and stood at the fence watching and daydreaming, thinking how much I missed hearing English and how hard this is sometimes.

Just then an older woman walked by and caught my eye. She smiled at me and started talking. And as she spoke she touched me; on the arm, hand, patting her words into me. It made me feel warm. After a few sentences of somewhat understanding her, my brain did a flip...I realized she was not speaking just French, but Spanish too. I heard the Spanish lisp and the familiar d for r sound of 'mira'.
So, we carried on that way. Her doing most of the talking; moving effortlessly between French and Spanish, patting, smiling, warming me.

As she continued on her exercise circuit around the football pitch she hugged me, 'a bien tot', 'hasta luego'. Kindness emanating from her regardless of language.

It is times like this when I am thankful that I am open. I would miss out on so many gifts if I tunneled down and buried my head in self-pitying English.

Once at a meeting with Ma Fille's teacher she said something that struck a nerve, 'It can be like a prison for you not to understand or communicate.' And she is right. It can. Only I don't want to be imprisoned by my ignorance so I force myself out. Open. Bumbling and stumbling. No matter what.


  1. It can be very isolating, and a real blow for the self-image, not being able to communicate properly. All the small jokes you'd like to make, little pieces of your personality you'd like to pass on, and you just can't. You have to be happy just getting the basic gist across. And I get so tired of feeling stupid, which I often do after a difficult encounter. But am happy to say I'm getting better, both at the language and not giving a damn about what others might think of me!

  2. Kirsty, That's exactly it. But there's only one way to go, up! And not only do I get tired of feeling stupid...I just get tired. we had french friends for lunch on sunday and afterwards i was totally wrecked...dreamed the same sentences over and over in french too.
    what are you making today? better pop over and have a look.
    xo aidan

  3. You're really brave to talk to people. I do so only if I have to. I want, but it is way harder than I though it would be. But, thinking of what you just wrote, I'll get up and try harder :)

  4. Anu, You don't give yourself enough credit...you already speak two languages which is more than I can say.
    a x

  5. nice post Aidan. reminds me of the time when i was 14 and spending a day of vacation in Hong Kong with some Chinese friends, who, for a whole day spoke only - well what else, chinese. Cantonese to be exact. I remember being struck by how different it was from say, being in Spain (with my meager Spanish) or Germany (same)...Like, you couldnt even guess the possible topic of a conversation, no cognates, no words borrowed into English. Not to mention that even communication through gestures and facial expression yields nearly nothing, since the cues are so different. And I remember that i felt like i was on Mars, more alone than i had ever felt in any situation...keep up the good work, and when you get really burnt out go talk to some babies. they are always a good argument for some kind of universal language capability, and a reminder of how lovely it can be to start from scratch :-)

  6. Aidan, in '52 when my parents married my father was working in Limoges. Needless to say my Mom didn't speak 1 word of French (and French people made less efforts to understand and connect with a foreigner at that time). She worked her grammar and listened non stop to the radio. Of course there were incidents along the way, asking for 'haches' instead of 'anchois' but in the end she conquered both the language and the respect of people. So, hold on, it takes time but it is worth the effort. And your kids will be so proud of you.
    By the way, Saturday I sent you a recipe to your email address, did you receibe it?

  7. Tracey,
    I can't imagine learning Cantonese. We were just talking about that with our French friends this weekend. Gestures, context and shared cultures (western) really do go a long way in helping communication.

    Thank you for the kind words...Italian is next on my daughter's list of languages to learn. she's taken to French like a duck to water. And you are another example of how it's done. I love reading your posts and seeing the Italian and English and tryign to piece meaning together.
    And, yes. I've meant to email you back and say thanks so much for the tiramisu recipe. I've never made it before and have saved it to my list of goodies. I didn't make it Sunday but I will. What I did was super simple, Christmasy and light. I wanted to share it with you anyway.
    marscapone with a teaspoon of vanilla, a few shakes of powdered or icing sugar--enough to make it sweet to your taste--and cinnamon. I open up dates and stuff them with the cheese, serve with clementines. What do you think? Have I ruined your marscapone cheese?!

    aidan x

  8. What a lovely post. It is so difficult sometimes, somedays .... I speak fluently now, so use me as a shining example!! :-) Seems like you have the right attitude, keep on talking, keep on smiling! I remember one New Years Eve when I was wrecked after 7 hours at the table, bottles of wine, rich food, and NON-STOP French! ha ha

    It isn't always easy. Your story of the Spanish person speaking with you reminded me of what my American friend up in Paris once said, "If an unknown person talks to you here, they're either foreign or crazy." Pretty much says it all, not always easy to communicate.

    Bonne continuation!

  9. I think that our mascarpone must be delicious the way you prepare it, I must give a try!

  10. It is like prison!
    I miss having easy breezy conversations with people, instead of being locked off in my own little world smiling at people and saying a simple sentence here and there. It's very lonely, isn't it?
    We'll get there one day Aidan, I know we will. Until then, I just hope there are loads of warm, arm patting people, and they can continue to stifle their laughter! x

  11. Charley,
    Fluent..oh, sweet sweet words to my ears. I'll have to try if only to keep up with my kids!

    do try it and let me know!

    and mme teacher said that to me in french! i know we'll get there too. hope your lesson goes well this week. Is it today?
    i love the arm patting.

    a xo

  12. Thank you for writing this post! I've been going into a downward spiral of zero French and today, after much procrastinating, I finally signed up for more classes. I already feel better knowing I'll be practicing again. Your post reminded me that I just need to keep trying and not fall into the trap of non-communication. Thank you!

  13. That's my girl-You don't quit! Keep on, and know I'm proud of you. Would love to know what the lady said.

  14. Linds,
    Your welcome. It's nice to know we all feel the same way and that we have each other out here in blog/internet land. And how boring would it be to go home and be surrounded by english anyway?!

    Thanks pops.
    she said something like this, how she walks for her exercise while her husband plays boules, how her arm has been hurting and she can't pick things up from the ground, how cute she thinks middlest is and that i'm sweet and that she sings songs in spanish to her grandson and he sings them too...and then she sang one for me. she's my friend now...saw her yesterday and we waved and blew kisses!


  15. Thanks, Aidan!

    That is a sweet story -makes you wonder if there aren't angels walking around! Glad you made a friend. Say hello for me when you see her next.


It makes my day to read your comments. They're an answer to my floating words in blogland.