It’s a very odd thing to be a foreigner in an unfamiliar country, especially when one doesn’t speak the language. Here I am an educated, functioning adult, stripped down to an illiterate clueless, childlike being totally unable to express myself with even a shred of grace or articulation.
I have been wandering around Nice, going into shops and cafes feeling as if I were rendered mute.
Of course if I actually just blurt out whatever it is I need to ask in English, most people here respond in English, or at least understand and respond in the kind of very slow French you might use when speaking to a dog or a very small child, but I know if I’m ever going to learn I need to at least try to say things in French.
The result, is me standing there like an idiot while my brain very slowly tries to retrieve some of the few French words I remember from elementary school and string them together, with a look on my face I’d imagine, not unlike someone who is constipated.
So, I started taking French classes at a little language school down the block, and I love it! I’ve always liked being in school and in addition to learning how to communicate with people, it’s nice to have some human contact built into my days.
The student population is almost entirely made up of women, nearly half of whom are over 60, and most f the others look to be around 18 or so, freshly out of high school and brushing up on their French before starting university or going into the workforce.
I fall into the quite large trough in the middle. I’m not particularly interested in the beach volley ball tournaments the school arranges in the evenings, but feel a bit odd tagging along with the over-sixties to their wine and cheese tasting nights. So I am still in search of my niche.
The one friend I have made so far, Kyoka, an incredibly friendly Japanese university student, has just left to go back to Kyoto, So I am once again left to my own awkward defenses during the 15 minute “pause “ we have between lessons.
I’ve got my eye on a few people who I am hoping to befriend though. There is another very shy Japanese girl in my class who I think is about my age, who I’ve tried talking to a couple of times after class, but she speaks almost as little English As I speak Japanese and not much more French, so after “bonjour” and “comment ca va“ are out of the way we just kind of make friendly noises and faces at each other until saying “a bientot”.
There seem to be quite a few German speaking Swiss students, and I have not met a single American – which I think says something about just how uninterested the majority of Americans are in broadening their horizons – and before I get pummeled for being on a high and very fortunate horse, I’d like to point out that currently, only 30% of Americans are passport holders.
Since my studies began I have had equal parts good luck and bad with my forays into conversation. So far I have made friendly small talk with the young boy at Islam Viandes (the aforementioned dirt-cheap Arab grocery store). He told me about the discothèque he likes to go to and I managed to pick up: “Une Baguette, les tomates, les nectarines et les olives aussi”.
And then I survived asking the nice women at the bookstore if “vous-allez un dictionnaire de Français et Anglais?” without embarrassing anyone too much.
But I also received some very confused looks from the women at the home furnishing shop when I asked them if “they go measuring cups?”
And was met with an absolutely blank stare of incomprehension when I tried to ask the woman at the pharmacy if I could use le bicarbonate (what the French call Baking soda, and which seems to be sold along with cleaning products or medical items) for baking.
French is undoubtedly a tough language to crack with all of the apostrophes and accents and all of the crazy rules about when to pronounce things and when not to, but I can only improve from here, so it’s a good place to be.