Humbling Experience

The Provencal sun has set on tourist season here in Nice and the student body has thinned at my adorable little language school, tucked in beside the cumquat trees on Rue D’angleterre

The over sixties have long since returned to their comfortable retirement, and the visiting university students are probably sound asleep in their French classes back home by now.

Gangly groups of hormone filled Austrian teenagers are still blocking the doorways and roaming the narrow halls, but I have come to feel at home with my motley crew of classmates.

After nearly six weeks of studying, with short-term students from Japan and Germany breezing though every so often, a hard-core little knot of us die-hard mediocre students are still here firmly planted in the A1 level class.

I would describe the A1 class is slightly above never having heard a French word uttered, but still miles from actually being able to converse with a French person.

We can introduce ourselves to each other with aplomb and haltingly recount the activities of our evenings past, but we are not quite ready for life in the real world of speaking actual French yet.

I have come to look forward to the comfort of my class and the cast of characters that traipse through the door each morning, none of whom (reassuringly), can string a sentence of poorly pronounced words together much better than I can.

There are only four of us left now.  Besides me there is Angelika, a bright-eyed yet often frustrated girl who hails from Switzerland, Kadir, an utterly charming Turkish-Swiss guy who only manages to show up to class about half of the time, and Saray, a very sweet girl from Spain who looks so sleepy every morning, its clear that our class is keeping her from her coveted siestas.

I realized just how far I have to go while playing a stripped down version of (my all time favorite game) Taboo one morning.

I had started to feel a bit of French wind in my sails.  I had recently learned how to say: “I need”, which was proving very useful, and I was feeling good about my progress.  Then I was handed a card with the word “assiete” written on it along with a picture of a plate.

It was at this moment I realized that while I may just about know the days of the week and how to ask for the time, I couldn’t for the life of me convey to the eager faces staring back at me what a plate is or what you might use one for.

After a few too many seconds of expectant silence I managed to say:

“C’est une chose….”  (“it’s a thing”)

Blank stares.

“Uum… c’est pour manger.”  (“It’s for to eat”)

Nothing.

There are few things as humbling as trying to learn a new language.   Any sense of sophistication I thought I might possess drains from my person as soon as I step into the French-only world of my class.

I am generally not someone who speaks with my hands, but as of late, it’s as though the activities that fill my days are all part of an elaborate, never ending game of charades.

But even my gestures seem to be unintelligible to the French.  I kept running into an odd scenario where each time I ordered one of something, at the market: “I’d like one melon please”, or at a café: “I’d like one café crème please”, the salesperson would say: “Do you want one or two?”

My French is beyond lacking, but I’m pretty sure I’ve got at least the number one down.  And I found it odd that in a country that seems culturally opposed (at least outwardly) to making money, all these vendors were trying to up-sell me on fruit and coffee.

But then I realized, I had been making the foolish mistake of holding up my pointer finger to correspond with the amount of items I was asking for.  In France, I have learned the hard way, you hold up the thumb to mean one, and the thumb and pointer finger for two, and so on.

The more I learn the more I realize I don’t know.

There is a false security that comes with being spoken to in the very slow, very clear, perfectly formed French spoken only by French teachers.

Things become a little difficult out in the real world, where people speak at a normal pace, and have the audacity to use vocabulary words and verbs I haven’t learned yet.

So for the moment I feel a wave of relief wash over me when I see mes amis each morning who won’t expect me to tell them anything more than what I did last night.

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