Language Checkpoint #1…passed

A while back, I tweeted about being able to understand the clerk at the grocery store for the first time since I arrived. I believe that I can confirm that I have passed some sort of “checkpoint”, for lack of a better word, with my language comprehension.  I am beginning to understand people now. It happened all at once. What honestly sounded like gibberish when I arrived, just clicked early in my vacation in October and has stuck. It was like I had been standing at a door knocking and someone finally let me in.

This isn’t to say that I can express myself or understand everything anyone is saying. Not even close. However, for the first time that I have been here, I can answer basic questions. I can discern what words people are saying instead hearing a rushing river of sounds coming out of their mouth. People don’t always answer me in English. The teachers at one of my high schools even said that my French had improved during the vacation. (To be fair, I have probably also improved my ability to hide my confused face.)

Nevertheless, I am excited to see some progress and am looking forward to that next “checkpoint” for comprehension. I’m hoping it will mean that I can have short conversations with people, or not have to preface most interactions with “I’m an American. I’m sorry, I don’t speak French very well.”

#allthebaguettes

This started as a joke. You know the French stereotype of a person donning a striped shirt and a beret riding on a bicycle with baguettes in the front basket?

While at a friend’s lakehouse this past summer, we talked about my time in France and how I would document my journey. I don’t have a lot of social media experience and we thought it would be funny to have an Instagram account devoted to just pictures of baguettes. I can’t explain why it was so funny, but it resulted in the creation of a Twitter account for baguettes and the joking use of #allthebaguettes every time we talked about France.
Honestly, I kind of thought that would be the end of it.
Little did I know that baguettes are kind of a big deal here.
When looking for an apartment, we toured one place and the first thing the person said was that there was a bakery nearby. We were kind of like, ‘yeah that’s great…what about a grocery store? I’m never going to go to a bakery because I’m too poor.’
Not in France.
I swear. I could have had a full Twitter/Instagram account with posts and pictures of everyone I’ve seen with baguettes. 5 PM is like baguette o’clock here. Husbands picking up baguettes for their wives on the way home from work. Children snacking on baguettes. A mother trying to appease a fussy child with a bite of baguette. Children chasing pigeons in the square with baguettes…You name a scene and there’s probably a baguette present.
What is the hold that baguettes have on the lovely people of Clermont-Ferrand? All I know so far is that they are cheap and delicious, but I will keep investigating.

Catcalling en français

With the recentish videos on the internet about catcalling, I wanted to add an observation from France. I was walking home the other day and all of a sudden I heard from the bus stop on the opposite side of the street:

“Madamoiselle! Bonjour! Madamoiselle…bonjour!”

It totally caught me off guard. My thought process went something like this:

Yay! I actually understood what they were saying (point Kristina!). Hey, I think they are talking to me. Wait, are they catcalling me? Okay, I’m creeped out. I’m going to walk a little faster. (Laughing to myself) Although, I must admit, it does sound a little less creepy in French then it does in English.

The power of the French language.

Enchanté

When you meet someone in France, they say, “enchanté.” That literally means, “Nice to meet you.” Because of how it is used in films or colloquially in the United States, it still catches me off guard. (Think about movies where the dashing and charming young man in the film kisses the hand of a young girl, in a formal gown, and says “enchanté” with a sparkle in his eye and that suave and also “I’m up to no good” voice. This is apparently the only way that I have seen “enchanté” used before coming to France.)

Someone (men) will say that to me and I have this moment where my face goes red and I’m thinking, “wow, that was inappropriately flirtatious.” Then, my face gets even redder when I remember that it is not at all flirtatious and, in fact, perfectly normal.

It is SO hard not to be awkward in another country.

Russian Roulette Laundry

Laundry. Another one of those seemingly simple things that should be about the same no matter where you go, right?

Wrong.

We have this nice washing machine/dryer combo in our apartment (and we are very lucky to have access to laundry here in our apartment instead of having to go to a laundromat or “laverie” as they are called here). At the same time, I feel like every time I do laundry, I am playing a relatively high-stakes game of chance with my wardrobe.

There are 13 settings defined by pictures of plants, waving clothes, wind and sun. Then there are three dials. One has a thermometer, snowflake and numbers that must be temperatures in celsius, but they seem way too high to be a water temperature for clothes. One dial has a sun with a shirt flying out the door. I think this represents the drying function, but again, the temperatures seem astronomical unless you want to set your clothes on fire. The third dial has numbers corresponding to the 13 wash settings and then additional pictures.

So, I set the three knobs to based on the most sensible hieroglyphics (the all-seeing eye, the flying chocolate chip and the leaf) and set it to launch. No matter what I do, the same things seem to happen. The cycle takes multiple hours. The clothes come out either burning hot (and with shrunken arms) or damp (but still really hot).

I mean, I was hoping to downsize my wardrobe for the journey home in seven months, but I had hoped that my clothes would last until spring. On the plus side, at least this will give me another excuse to go shopping for clothes in France!

The French kiss.

The French kiss instead of shaking hands. (Oh, was that not what you thought I was going to say?) This has been very difficult to get used to. For years, the natural gesture of meeting someone and shaking their hands, or maybe hugging depending on the situation, has been ingrained in my head.

When I am introduced to someone new, I have had to become very diligent in remembering that the French do the chic, European kiss on both cheeks. Several times.

For non-French (at least the Americans and one British assistant I’ve talked to), it is very awkward. There are clearly wrong and right times to do that. It also depends on if you are a male or female (and who you are greeting). Sometimes people actually kiss you on the cheek. The number of times you kiss also depends on what region you are in. It is une danse très compliqué (a very complicated dance) with ever changing rules…I just cannot figure out the steps.

For example, in Clermont-Ferrand, people tend to kiss two times. In other places, they kiss three times. I was in one of those regions a couple of weeks ago and surprise! Extra kiss. Not that it was a bad thing. You just feel a little stupid when you pull away. (Kind of an “oops, we’re still kissing apparently” moment.)

So, if people couldn’t tell in the few words I would have said to them that I am American, they know when I put out my hand. They are very nice. They will shake my hand. Sometimes they will pull me in for a kiss anyway. Or they will make some joke about being American. Usually, it ends up okay.

When I was an intern in D.C., I worked for the Pan American Health and Education Foundation and we interacted with people from all over the world. So, I had been in business situations where the proper greeting with the air kiss. However, if I shook their hand, it was okay. We were in the US. There was no awkwardness.

Now, worst case scenario. Someone will come up to me and kind of lean in, but not really indicate that we’re going to air kiss and I miss the subtle signal. I only realize that I’ve missed my cue when they back away slightly, tilt their head slightly and give me a slightly confused look. (Even then it often takes me a couple of minutes to fully comprehend what has happened.) Then its like, great, now you think I’m rude, stupid or both and I don’t know the language well enough to explain what just happened and too much time has passed anyway to apologize and now I’m just trying to smile a lot to look friendly and hide my blushing face. This usually happens when I am in a more formal setting or when I see students outside of class and they stop me.

Those days, I just feel like a rude American. So that’s a new challenge for me: learn how not to be rude in France. Challenge accepted.