Of Notes and Neurosis

Learning French

One night out at a bar, I got up to use the restroom. I asked MB to point it out, and walked up to the door he indicated that said ‘toilettes’. Naturally, I assumed that either there would be two doors for men and women once you entered or that it was just a ‘one-sie’. I opened the door, walked in, and found myself staring at a man peeing in the urinal. Flustered, I clumsily backed out of the door, my face the color of ‘vin rouge’. Had I wandered into the wrong restroom? I looked around for another door…nothing, I walked to the back of the bar…nothing. Finally, I went and asked MB where the girl’s restroom was.

“Quoi? I take you to the restroom already. It’s right there,” he said while pointing towards the ‘door of impropriety’.

“There are penises in there.”

“Ouais (this is the French version of ‘yeah, no sh-t’ and is pronounced ‘whey’), you are in France, baby. We don’t care so much about these things. Do you want me to go with you?”

This is why, at the ripe age of 30, a chaperone had to accompany me to the bathroom.

MB has had to deal with lots of these moments since my arrival in France. While living in a foreign country can certainly make you feel independent and strong (most often when talking to other people about it), the reality is somewhat different. Learning what is ‘normal’ in a new culture and trying to navigate a foreign language basically reduces you to the status of child. MB has had to explain that I need not be offended by line skipping, and that strangers will probably think it is odd if I strike up conversations with them, that bathrooms may be unisex, and that a store isn’t closed all day just because it is closed for lunch. He has made doctor’s appointments for me and then accompanied me on them (what man wouldn’t enjoy translation duties with his girlfriend’s gynecologist?), he’s talked to aesthetiticians when I’ve gone to get a facial, and when repair men come and try to explain something to me, I generally am reduced to calling him for them to talk to.

Recently, I applied for French school (clearly necessary as evidenced by these blog posts); there was a mix-up with the paperwork and MB was going to be out of town on the first day of class. Even though I was not registered he told me to go anyway and tell them I wanted to be put in the class and that was that.

“What language do you propose I explain this in?” I asked, frustrated.

“Quoi? They don’t speak English?”

“When I went yesterday, there was nary an English speaker,” I said.* “And you do realize that I don’t speak French, right?”

My panic was starting to rise and my sarcasm with it. I didn’t want to show up at an office, by myself, and try to force my way into a class. It felt uncomfortable, awkward, and also like a scenario that would have a high probability of embarrassment.

“I will write you a note,” he said.

I felt like idiotic, like a child on the first day of school.

“I’m not showing up with a note!” I sneered, disdain dripping from every syllable. “I’m not a moron, you know.”

MB sighed, and later, after I had calmed down, he wrote me a note.

Through some miracle, when I arrived at the school, I found an English speaking staff member and was able to sort it out on my own, without the awkwardness of producing the note.

Sometimes it feels ridiculous that I can’t do simple tasks or make basic requests on my own, and other times it can just be downright frustrating. I want to go to the bathroom by myself, fearlessly! I want to sign myself up for school without assistance! There is a sense of autonomy that has been lost and the control-freak in me is having a bit of a nervous breakdown. I love my independence and my ability to do things on my own, but, on the other hand, maybe it’s not such a bad thing to learn how to ask for help. And aren’t I lucky to have someone so willing to give it? I’m finding out that it’s okay to let go a little bit and trust another to be able to handle some stuff for me. It is not always easy, and I still like to try to accomplish things myself but when all else fails, is it such a bad thing to have a note?

(NOTE: Yes, you read that correctly, when arriving at the FRENCH LANGUAGE SCHOOL, I could not find anyone who spoke a language other than French…perhaps not helpful seeing as how everyone attending the school would be trying to learn it.)

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6 thoughts on “Of Notes and Neurosis

  1. Notes are great! I used to get them in Korea all the time. Sometimes they backfire a bit though. The one my coworker wrote me for iron tablets was actually for pregnancy vitamins. My Korean girlfriends though this was very funny. No wonder the pharmacist tried to sell me a whole lot of other stuff.

    You can always write your own notes by using google translate!

  2. Andrew and I enjoy your blog SO much!

    I highly recommend, if you haven’t read it already, picking up (or downloading) “A Year in Provence.” You’ll laugh along at the middle-aged English couple’s frustration at not being able to speak French, and soon enough, just like them, you’ll be looking back at this “Frenchless” time in your life with wry amusement when you’re effortlessly conversing at the local charcuterie.

  3. Thanks for that – I’m glad y’all like it!! You should plan a trip over to see me! I have read a Year in Provence but it has been ages – it would be so different to read it now! Excellent notion!

  4. My favourite is Almost French by Nikki Turnbull. I have just arrived 3 weeks ago to permanently live in Bretagne, the north-west of France. I stumbled on your blog today and it is so nice to hear someone elses thoughts mirroring mine! Please. Keep. Writing. IT MAKES ME FEEL SANE!
    Bisous!
    Nikki Le Moigne

    1. Wow Nikki – thanks for such a kind review and the encouragement! Greatly appreciated!

      YES – have read Almost French and it is so hilarious, all the little slips-ups and cultural differences that no one ever warns you about. Congrats on your new move – what an exciting time! Enjoy the cider and crepes! 😉 I look forward to checking out your blog!

      (can I ask where you stumbled across mine? I’m trying to figure out the best way to market it and failing rather miserably, haha!)

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