Fake it to Make it

Adjusting to France, Learning French

I’m standing in the middle of my gynecologist’s office as she moves a chair to put it against the door.  I’m not quite sure who we are barricading it against but I’m glad to know that if the killer from one of the “Scream” movies decides to show up during my exam that we are all good.

“No one will come in – okay?”  She says this to me smiling.

“Great,” I reply…because um…what other response is there?  Are there women who like to share the Pap smear experience?

She says something else to me quickly in French and then turns to the “tools of discomfort” to prepare.

I began to undress, assuming that is what she told me to do, as she piddles around the room.  I feel a bit awkward just getting naked in the middle of a room but “hey” this ain’t my first rodeo; I am familiar with the gyno exams in France.  I plop my buck-naked* self down on the paper-covered bench and wait for her to turn around and begin the exam.

I chuckle a bit, thinking to myself how it still amuses me to be naked and hanging out with a stranger when suddenly another, chilling thought crosses my mind…

“Shit…I hope that I’m supposed to be naked right now.”

***

To fully explain all of this, I think I better go back to the very beginning.

When I first got to France I was willing to try everything on my own.  You need me to talk to the plumber?  Of course I can handle that.  I want to organize my French lessons with the University?  Dude…I got this.  Anything that came my way I was willing to go for, being the independent person I was.  I mean, hey, I had already moved to two different countries – I was used to figuring out new places; I even found it fun.  When you know almost nothing of the language then you don’t really have too much to lose (read: if people are making fun of you there is no way that you will understand it so you can’t possibly care).

Slowly, however, things started to change.  I started having problems – as my French improved and I understood more in some weird way I almost started understanding less.  I remember standing at the counter paying for a facial for 20 minutes while they tried to explain to me that I was supposed to take a device home and then return in two weeks for a follow up.  I looked at them, my sheepish smile plastered to my face, so unsure about what to do.  It seemed clear that I was meant to take the small device with me but if that was not what they were saying, how weird and awkward and (OMG) embarrassing would it be if I tried to walk out with it?  I was trapped, crippled by the desire to appear competent even though I was so obviously not.

“Prenez,” the lady said to me clearly.

“Tu prends,” said the young girl who had been staring into the abyss of my pores just moments earlier.

“Vous comprenez,” the lady asks me again if I understand.

I give a laugh and shake my head “no” because there is no international sign for “actually I think I get it but I’m not sure and don’t want to look like an ass.”  A man, seated behind me begins to speak with the lady and the young girl and I am stuck standing there as they have a 5 minute conversation of how to explain to me what to do.

I wanted to run out the door, escape entirely, this is not a challenge that I wanted to address.  I hadn’t learned the verb “prendre” yet and it wasn’t just going to magically make sense to me.  I knew in that moment that the situation was hopeless, yet manners forced me to stay there, humiliation raining down upon me.

Finally, the lady smiled at me and shrugged, the young girl rolled her eyes in irritation, snatched the device and walked to the back, and I paid and left.

I remember trying not to cry on the way home and I’m certain when MB arrived back from work that evening he was greeted with wails of “I hate it here, why did you make me come here, this is horrible!”

I felt so stupid and so embarrassed.

From this point on, things began to change.  I stopped going to do things on my own.  If someone needed to come by the apartment to work on something I made sure that MB was either there or available by phone.  When I wanted to make an appointment for my facials I would go in person instead of calling so that I could avoid any awkward phone conversation.  I had lost my gumption.

Scarlett O’Hara would have been so annoyed with me.

It took a while after that incident for me to own up to a few infallible truths:

  1. I ABHOR being embarrassed.
  2. Life is embarrassing.  (perhaps even more so when you are learning something new)
  3. Being embarrassed is funny if you are willing to laugh.

I mean, at the end of the day, what is more embarrassing anyway?  Having your husband translate the phrase, “please put your feet in the stirrups now” or premature nakedness because you pretended that you understood what was told to you?

***

My heart is beating in my chest as my gynecologist begins to turn around.  “Please let me be supposed to be naked, please let me be supposed to be naked!”

“Okay,” she says, snapping the rubber on her glove.  “We do theez now?”

Nailed it,” I think smugly.

***

Totally supposed to be naked.”

 

* For those of you not from familiar with the term “Buck Naked” (“naked” should be pronounced “nekkid”).  Please read this one because the example is just perfection:  http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/buck+naked  And is this isn’t enough for you there is a complete background on the term here:  http://www.randomhouse.com/wotd/index.pperl?date=20001005

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Schizofrenchia

Cultural Differences

From the corner of my eye I see my Mother watching me with a wry expression on her face.  I give her a look as if to say “quoi?!” and return to my conversation.  I am discussing, in French, the various differences between French culture and American culture with MB’s family; nothing out of the ordinary is being said so I am perplexed by my Mother’s seeming amusement.  Finally the conversation comes to an end and I stalk over to her in the corner.

“What was that, Mom?”  I ask, while mimicking the face she was giving me during the conversation.

“Oh, nothing,” she replies, fully delighting in her enigmatic-ness (it’s my blog and I’ll make up words if I want to).

“PUH-leeeeeeeeeese,” I say, giving her my lamest look of all time.  “Like I can’t tell when you have something to say.”  I lean towards the table and pour us each a glass of wine, handing one to her.  “So what gives?”

“It’s nothing, it’s just that your personality is really different in French.”

“Huh,” I ask (so provocative, clearly I’m not ever going to have a career in investigative journalism).

“I don’t know,” she continues.  “Your voice changes, you speak more high pitch but more softly, you make different gestures…you just seem more serious or something.”

“AHHHHHHHHH,” I grasp my chest in mock horror.  “Not serious!  How horrible, how upsetting – what will we do?  How will we fix this?!”

The wry look returns to my Mother’s face.

“Case in point,” she says and wanders towards MB and the other Frenchies to talk.

***

For some reason my personality does seem to morph when I speak in French.  I don’t know if it has to do with thinking so hard about what I am saying or if it is something in the nature of the French language* or if it is just that it gives me the feeling of playing a character.

I am not Americain, NON, I am FRANCAISE and must be-ave accordingly.  Do not geeve me deez look, Maman, I am being serious…(*dramatice pause*)…I am being French.”

(Note to parents: this is what happens when you send your child to too many acting classes.)

Ironically, this French “character” of mine is much more toned down than the American version, she is quieter, more pensive (read: trying to pretend she understands what is being said), and more hesitant to speak (read: trying to come up with how to put a sentence together)…in effect, she is a bit more boring.

Recently, I had this conversation with another North American expat** living here in the Grenoble area.  She (being a Canadian) grew up learning French in school and is almost 100% fluent but told me she encounters the same issues.

“I’m just not funny in French,” she lamented to me over a glass of wine (Oh my GAWD, again with the wine, I mean, how much wine does she drink?!?!?  A lot).  “I mean, every time I am with French friends I want to say, “I swear I’m funny in English.  But it just isn’t the same – the jokes are different and sometimes I’m freaked out to make jokes in French, like what if I awkwardly get it wrong.

This is yet another problem with trying to translate one’s personality to another language – humor.  Jokes are tricky, even in your own language, the last thing you want to do is use a wrong word or accidentally utilize a super offensive turn of phrase when you are trying to be jocular.  I mean, nothing falls flatter and more uncomfortably than that.

For example, you and a friend are talking and you accidentally say something in French that you think means one thing but in reality is anti-funny or worse yet, super offensive.  Your friend, knowing your language difficulty understands but someone else overhears and picks a fight.  You misunderstand what the fight-picker is saying and the fight gets worse!  Next thing you know, Tybalt has killed your best friend and to avenge him you then kill Tybalt and it all ends like this:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8GDd83IQDxw

 

That’s right…in a creepy candle-lit room with poison and LOTS of kisses involving snot and possibly a necrophilia fetish.

…Or something like that.

I guess the point is that personalities don’t always make the complete leap over the language barrier.  A person might be hilarious in their own language and boring in a different language or vice-versa.  I mean, someone could just as easily be more out-going and hilarious in a foreign language than they would ever be in their native tongue; it’s like language schizophrenia.

So, I guess that is it.  There will be the American version on myself and the French version and I must learn to embrace my newly found personalities.

*For the record, there is also an Italian version of myself for the few times that I have made attempts at that language – in this version I am really loud and wave my arms a lot.  Truth.

** Also, my Canadian friend writes some pretty fun articles for Dogster.com – check her out!  http://www.dogster.com/lifestyle/kristen-stewart-dog-photos-more-expressive

A Month of Sundays: Encore Presentation

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*(Re-Post Warning:  So yes, I posted this a couple of years ago but in honor of the 1st day of August AKA “Month of Nothing” I thought I would put it up again.  Next week I will expound further on the France/August situation…until then I will be trying to be productive while nothing is open.

Enjoy!)*

This is a transcript of my most recent conversation with France.

Me:  Bonjour France!

France:  Oui, bonjour.   (France takes a sip of Pastis)

Me:  Guess what?!

France:  Quoi?

Me:  My semester ends the first week of August; I’m so excited.  I’m going to catch up on my workouts at the gym, read lots of books, work on my cooking; its going to be great!

France:  Ah oui?  Very…ambitious.  (France looks suspicious when it says this)

Me:  Yep, in fact, I think I’ll start by going to the gym right now!

France:  No.  I don’t think so.

Me:  Whaaa?  Why not?  MB is out of town for 3 weeks.  He’ll come back and I’ll be buff!

France:  It is so hot.  Do you really want to go?

Me:  Yes, I don’t care that the gym isn’t air-conditioned (actually I do, but that is for another post).

France:  Well, it is August; so I think that I will just close the gym.  (France says this nonchalantly but won’t look me in the eye)

Me:  You can’t do that!  I live here; I have a year membership!

France:  Pfff…not for the next 3 weeks, my little American friend.  (France pulls out a cigarette and lights it)

Me:  Fine, I will just hike in the mountains and take picnics.

France:  I will make it rain.

(I give France a face)

France:  C’est la vie.  (France says this matter-of-factly)

Me:  I don’t think you are using that phrase right, its meant to be a good thing, you know, ‘c’est la vie’!

France:  It is my phrase, huh?  I will use it as I want to use it.  Pfff…

Me:  Fine, I will sit inside with lots of good books from the library.

France:  (France takes a drag of its cigarette and exhales leisurely)  You think so?

Me:  Yes, I will get lots of cheesy romance novels about English speaking foreigners coming to France and falling in love…they will all have happy endings!

France:  (France rolls it’s eyes)  You think the library will be open?

Me:  YES.  I know they have vacation hours; I have checked.

France:  I hate to tell you, but I have closed the library too.

Me:  Seriously?

France:  Très sérieux.

Me:  So, I can’t go to the gym and I can’t go to the library…is the market open?

France:  Sometimes, but I will not disclose all the hours and days ahead of time.  I prefer for you to guess.

Me:  (I sigh loudly)  Well, maybe I will go to the sea!

France:  HA!  (France spits out a mouthful of Pastis)  Enjoy all the tourists!  Enjoy the backed up traffic from Paris to Cassis!  Are you CRE – ZEE (read: crazy)?!

Me:  So how am I supposed to fill up my month?

France:  Just relax, enjoy your life.

Me:  We’ve talked about this.  Remember Sundays?

France:  I know but you have to get over this need to be busy all the time.  (France motions to the waiter to bring another Pastis)

Me:  Okay, so what can I do?

France:  Its August, my friend, you can sit with me and have a drink.