how to swallow a frog

Speaking Italian is like trying to swallow a frog.

Not in a bad way.

It’s just new. A formidable challenge for my English, French-ified brain. The unfamiliar rolled r’s and smooth vowels might leap from my mouth at any moment.

The nasal ‘u’ I’ve spent so long perfecting in French, the guttural ‘r’ I’m proud of– all of it has to go.

My Italian tutor has me read long pages of text about interior design, the hunting instincts of cats, and the inner workings of the brain. I stumble over sterilizzazione, momentaneamente, diffusissime and he reads the sentence back to me flawlessly, savoring the rolled r’s like a fine beverage. My r’s are subtle and the result of careful concentration. They expire in about a fourth of a second, no match for Gianluca with his breezy norrrrrmale and cacciatorrrrre.

The man luxuriates in the beauty of his language. I respect that, and firmly will my stolid Germanic tongue to participate.

My Italian tutor is a bespectacled, middle-aged Milanese who possesses a voice fit for radio and a symphony of hand gestures. He’s tall, I think…but I’ve only ever seen him seated at a desk. We talk over Skype twice a week for an hour, Sancha the cat occasionally sniffing at the camera.

I found Gianluca on Le bon coin, a French Craigslist. Among the baby clothes and tires was his annonce proposing ten lessons for a bizarrely low price.

Somehow it wasn’t too good to be true. And here I am three months later, a happy amateur with enough knowledge to get around (proven in Florence last month). A year with Gianluca, and I think I’ll really know my stuff.

There is such a thing as teacher-student chemistry when it comes to learning. Gianluca and I were a great match.

Success in language-learning is directly linked to how much of un clown you’re willing to be. It’s like dancing. If all you can think about is how silly you look, it shows. But if you’re thinking about how much fun you’re having–not thinking at all–that shows too.

I’m more than willing to look silly (whatever helps my brain build those neural pathways) and since I think speaking a foreign language is one of the most rewarding kinds of fun, I have plenty of motivation. Gianluca is always ready with some challenging activity to make me think on my feet.

From the first day, he had me reading paragraphs about the disputed origins of the pizza margarita. I didn’t even know what Italian was supposed to sound like, not beyond exaggerated caricatures–mamma mia! ciao beeella!

And he wanted me to read. Off I went, in an accent cobbled together from Mario, a few words my family has tossed around the dinner table, and Cher in Moonstruck. Pronunciation was a mystery. What sound does ‘e’ make in the wild? Which c’s sound like chh?

At first I hesitated. But he knew I didn’t know, and he was waiting. It was freedom to guess, to just try, sans consequences.

Sì,it was probably very ugly. But it was exhilarating. Already I was speaking Italian! Sentence by sentence, I felt things clicking into place, my mind sorting all the new information.

Language learning delights me with its disciplined magic. I love that committing the ‘to be’ conjugations to memory and repeating sentences like “the friends are going into town to eat a good pizza” will one day result in communication.

It’s been quite awhile since I’ve been here with French, yelling “the grass is green! The grass is green!” as I wait for Rosetta Stone to register the phrase.

As an added bonus, my lessons have taught me about my own students. How does Gianluca expect me to remember that, I’ll think. We talked about it once! And then I’ll think, a little guiltily, about how I do that with my classes, and often. What I have sometimes taken for obstinance or indifference on their part might just have been information overload.

I have twenty years on them, but becoming the pupil again taught me empathy. Classes went better once the teacher had her own days of the week to memorize. Lunedì, martedì…

I gave them a lot more time and space to think and remember. I started defining success a different way, one that fit their abilities. I became genuinely excited when they met the little goals I used to take for granted.

Consider me humbled. And isn’t that what learning a foreign language is all about?

 

Photos are from a trip to Menton, France. Click to see the post.

embracing the absurd

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That long, skinny vegetable.

That colorful thing in the sea.

That thing that you close with a key.

These sound like lines from a fun board game, but are in fact desperate definitions I’ve uttered within the past week when the French term for leek or coral reef or lock escapes me.

I can speak quickly now, producing French at about the same speed as my native English, but that ability doesn’t always disguise knowledge gaps: simple nouns and verbs that I missed or forgot along the way. I compensate with long, looping definitions, often punctuated by you know.

“So we bought some…” My story grinds to a halt. “Tu sais, that long, skinny vegetable?” The listener squints. They don’t know.

“White and green, tu sais, makes a good soup?”

Over five years of dedicated language study and I’m liable to get tripped up on a leek. img_2368

Cooking with a friend really drives the point home. “Could you pass the board for cutting things? Where is the bowl with holes in it? I need the thing for scraping, made of plastic.” I sound weirdly literal, like an alien who has studied human life from afar. Either that or like someone who doesn’t get out much. How have I made it this far and missed colander?

Learning the French language has been a first-class study in the art of French absurdism. This school of thought, motivated by nationwide dejection in post-war France, claims that our very existence is absurd. Certainty is impossible. Does life have meaning? The answer is paradoxical: a definitive maybe. Existentialists sometimes bemoan this fact. Absurdists embrace it. It is by facing the void (and often, by laughing at it) that we can reconcile our absurd state. It is still possible, Absurdists maintain, to live bravely. To seek beauty.

I read playwright Eugène Ionesco’s “La Cantatrice chauve” senior year of college. This “anti play” employs language that does not result in communication. Thanks to the many missteps of my language-learning journey, this idea of language divorced from communication is an area in which I have lots of practice. img_7425

Set in a proper middle-class English interior, the play opens with a Mr. and Mrs. Smith in the midst of a strange conversation. They speak in clichés and then are suddenly cold and literal, as if narrating their own behavior. They make statements and then immediately contradict themselves with no change in expression. Stage directions include: bursts into laughter, then she bursts into tears. Then she smiles. 

Soon, dinner guests arrive. Mr. and Mrs. Martin sit facing each other, without speaking. They smile timidly at each other. The dialogue which follows must be spoken in voices that are drawling, monotonous, a little singsong, without nuances.

The dialogue which follows concerns how this married couple might know one another. Hmm, they wonder. Did we run into each other once, long ago? It seems we are both from Manchester. They deduce, finally, that they share a bedroom, and even a daughter! How curious it is, how strange! Finally, Mr. Martin announces in the same flat, monotonous voice, slightly singsong, that “dear lady, there can be no doubt about it, we have seen each other before and you are my own wife…Elizabeth, I have found you again!”

The play ends with the characters screaming out rhymes, sequences of letters, and one-syllable utterances, shrieking together as the light is extinguished.

But it has not yet ended. The stage lights come on again to show Mr. and Mrs. Martin, now seated as were the Smiths in the beginning. Thus the play begins again, with the Martins speaking the same lines as in the debut. The curtain falls.

I wasn’t expecting my French homework to send shivers down my spine. But this innocuous little play somewhere in the middle of my battered three-hundred page textbook did just that. I was early to class the next day to find out more. img_7390

Funny, creepy, and like nothing I have read before or since, I would certainly recommend it. Click here for the English text and here for French.

When you think about how much can go wrong, the delicate balance of semantics and pragmatics, it’s a wonder that we can even understand each other at all. La Cantatrice chauve takes this idea to an extreme, language’s every possible ambiguity exploited. The results are far from pretty.

Little did I know that I would be installing myself, post-grad, in the Smith’s living room. In France, effortless communication was a thing of the past, replaced by accidental non-sequiturs, wild hand gestures, and desperate expressions. It was only a matter of time, I felt, before I would resort to full-on absurdism, to screaming incoherently into the night.

It is difficult to exemplify the linguistic chaos that I have experienced, for I have tried to erase many of these gaffes from memory. I do have a few recent examples. You need only to imagine the complications that could result from mistaking cheville and chevreuil. These words, which sound fairly similar, mean “ankle” and “venison,” respectively.

Last week I asked for ankle pâté.

My first week in Cannes, thanks to a one-syllable mistake, I asked a woman in a boulangerie if she knew of a nearby store where I could go run a race.

It is moments like these when the absurd is felt fully. I look respectable, I speak confidently and fluently…and I produce a sentence so unintentionally strange that I have learned to recognize a distinctive expression on the faces of strangers. It is marked by a slight widening of the eyes, a furrow between the brows. There is perhaps a reevaluation of my mental state. Those few uncomfortable seconds are an eternity: the time it takes to cross the gulf between language and communication. My heartbeat seems to emanate from my eardrums.

These moments were once agonizing for me. I used to walk around thinking that everyone knew I was une étrangère: my non-native awkwardness surely as visceral as a bright bullseye painted on my back.

It’s not fun to be forced into a starring role in an absurdist play.

Until it is. I took a cue from the Absurdists and I learned to laugh. At myself, at ridiculous situations, at what we call communication.

In hindsight, I see that my seriousness and self-consciousness came from simple fear. There is, after all, something scary and absurd about starting over as an adult, struggling to communicate basic wants and needs. The disparity between my thoughts and the language I was able to produce frustrated me to no end.

Time, experience, and improved language skills eased the fear. But even more significant was learning to lighten up. It’s something I still work on, a skill like any other. But largely, I see my “failures” as funny. It’s not so life-or-death: and why, I wonder now, did I ever think that? There are no French grammar police hiding behind a tree waiting to fine me for incorrectly conjugating the subjunctive. img_7422

Sometimes, even now, a notable language mistake or inability to communicate will make me feel like a child. But maybe that’s not so bad. Babies have a big, beautiful world in front of them, full of unknowns, ripe for the exploring. So do we, the language learners, the close observers, the passionately curious; those of us who choose to implant ourselves into a mysterious new culture and start over: just for the thrill of it. Let’s embrace the absurdity of communication. We need not run screaming into the night.

 

 

To read more about my wrestling with France, try French People Tell Me What to Do: “In my French life, there is almost always a slight sense of bouleversement–disruption–the feeling that I don’t quite know what’s going on at any given time. All the yawning aspects of daily life have been shifted, a bit like that prank where you move every piece of someone’s furniture five inches to the right. I am the one pranked: I don’t notice when I walk into the room, but am surely going to stub my toe.”

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french people tell me what to do

If I wrote my own version of Rebecca Solnit’s “Men Explain Things to Me,” it would be called “French People Tell Me What to Do.”

That’s what a lot of my life here is, saying okay when I’m not sure that it is, taking someone’s word for it because I certainly don’t know enough to argue with them. I thought it was due to the language barrier–the solid brick wall between what I meant and what I could express–but when I achieved fluency it just kept happening.

It’s not the French language, then, but the French way of life: something much harder to study. It’s sneaky and subtle. Some days I’m nostalgic for the early days of learning, the black-and-white satisfaction of memorizing vocabulary lists for Madame Wetzel: amener, appeler, arroser. 

In my French life, there is almost always a slight sense of bouleversement–disruption–the feeling that I don’t quite know what’s going on at any given time. All the yawning aspects of daily life have been shifted, a bit like that prank where you move every piece of someone’s furniture five inches to the right. I am the one pranked: I don’t notice when I walk into the room, but am surely going to stub my toe.

Being a foreigner makes me conscious of things I rarely consider in the States, like how I’m essentially at the mercy of so many strangers every single day. If they tell me to wait, I wait. Sign here? I do. That’ll be 36 euros? Let me get my card. As I organize a new bank account, long-stay work visa, and phone plan, I feel dangerously vulnerable, like this can’t possibly work out and I’m going to get scammed. Somehow it does, though, giving me a thrill like I’m cheating the system. How is this underprepared American doing it? Your guess is as good as mine.

Despite little successes, what I can accomplish here in a day doesn’t come close to my productivity at home. There, I expect to walk into the bank, post office, restaurant, gas station, library…and leave with what I came for. Check.

Here, I don’t count on that. Half the battle is finding the business open (and not on a surprise holiday or vacation or two-hour lunch break). Here, I have to remember that the bus still runs at 7pm–but only halfway through the normal route, so I might be forced to disembark in the middle of nowhere. That of course I can’t pay by card. That wifi is a luxury and that, even in a train station, I might need a euro handy to pay to use the bathroom.

The little inconveniences happen every day: not enough to really dampen my spirits, but just enough to keep me on my (stubbed) toes.

Even today, I was ready for a full day of writing in a café. I had errands to run, a bag for my groceries, a fully-charged computer, comfortable heels. But the bus didn’t come. A little old lady walking a little old dog asked me what I was doing: don’t you know it’s la Toussaint, mademoiselle? In other words, everything is closed. Of course I didn’t know about it. But now that my successes are slowly outweighing my French failures, this kind of thing just makes me laugh (and hope there’s enough food in the pantry for dinner).

I’m a spontaneous procrastinator who lives for last-minute decisions: to the bar! to the gym! to the store! to Bordeaux! and what I’m discovering is that being here cramps my style because it’s just not the way things are done.

Paradoxical France, the country of the romantic yet stubbornly practical. The concept of a “dream job” does not come from this nation.

I grew up hearing American Girl, 90s girl-power wishes: “Be YOU! Follow your dreams! You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take!”

I laugh imagining that here. “Follow your objectives,” is how I think it would translate, and that is not something you hear (all the better; what a lame motivational statement).

C’est pas possible seems the default for risky or creative endeavors.

I tell people I want to be a writer. I mention articles, books, magazines. I mention passion, figuring it out as I go along. In France, they look at me and squint. You mean you’re in journalism? 

This used to get on my nerves, but I’ve accepted that it’s just a different way of seeing the world, a way I appreciate but don’t fully accept. I’m thankful for my American upbringing, even with its flaws, its inaccurate food pyramid, its pie-in-the-sky-positivity. It’s made me just stubborn enough to wrestle with France.