Chatty Chats

Adjusting to France, Learning French

Found: French dog*.

I am sitting on the metro, ready for my thirty minute ride on the way home from French class (ugh).  I always sit in the same seat on the second level with no neighbors**; I like to zone out on the tram and frankly I just don’t like being smushed up next questionable strangers, there, I said it.  About fifteen minutes into my ride an elderly gentleman sits down at the one-seater across from me.

He is all smiles and I can feel his eyes boring into me.  Keep looking out the window!  Don’t make eye contact!  I have the same feeling I have when I have just sat on the airplane with a book and I see an overly happy person walking towards the empty seat next to me.  My Southerness (https://breadispain.wordpress.com/2012/09/27/have-a-bless-ed-day-and-others-things-dogs-say/) won’t allow me to ignore a potential conversation so I must concentrate hard on something else if I’m going to avoid talking.

The tram starts up again and I continue to ponder the window pane in fascination.  Then I slip and look at the time on my IPod.

He jumps, nay leaps, at the opportunity and immediately tells me my IPod looks like a wrist watch because of the case I have it in (that’s right, I still use my arm band workout case even when I’m not working out – what if I get the sudden urge to workout, one must always be prepared).  I smile nicely and laugh “tehehehehehehe”, yes, yes we are all polite, now I am going to go back to staring out the window because there are a lot of tram stops left and while I would normally embrace stranger conversations, I have just left four hours of French class and my head is swimming; there is no way I can sustain a chat in French right now.

A minute or so passes.

“Vous etes etranger?”  He is smiling at me expectantly.

Le sigh.  I surrender and take off my IPod completely.

“Oui, je suis Americaine,” I smile back encouraging him (damn you upbringing!).

“Ah!  Americaine!  Tres bien!”

He continues on, chatting amicably.  I tell him that I am learning French but am not very good, he tells me (in English) that he knows some English but is not very good.  We chat a bit about French class and the difficulties of learning other languages.  Finally he stands up to get off at his stop.

“Eet eez verwy nice to mit yew,” He says patting my hand as he descends.

“Enchante,” I say.  “Bonne journee, monsieur!”

“Arrivaderchi,” he laughs.  “Italian!”  He is so pleased with himself.

“Ciao,” I respond playing along.

He laughs again, “ciao ciao!”

Then he is gone, as the tram pulls out I get a last glimpse of him merrily running across the tram tracks to cross the street.  Spritely old fellow.

As my tram ride continues it occurs to me that I have just met a French dog.  I think back over the past month or so and realize that lately I have been meeting a lot of French dogs.  What has caused this change?  Has France read my blog and decide to be chattier?  Somehow I doubt it.  Instead, I think that it is because, due to my French class, I am now on the same schedule as the old-timers and old-timers don’t have the social hang ups of young people; if they want to chat, they are going to chat.  Maybe they aren’t dogs, but rather they are chatty “chats”!  (I slay me)

It reminds me of when I used to work reception at a government office and people would call to complain about various things; often after the complaint was made the old-timers would just want to talk and have a conversation.  Getting older can’t be easy; the world that you knew for most of your life is gone, society changes, rules change, people you know pass out of your life.  So whether you are a Cat or a Dog, don’t shut down when you run into a smiling elderly person on the tram or at the grocery store, give them a chat, a moment of your time; if you are lucky, someone will return the favor to you one day.

* Point of reference: https://breadispain.wordpress.com/2011/08/24/the-truth-about-cats-and-dogs/

**That’s right; I’m that guy, the person who has my favorite tram seat.  Maybe when I am an old-timer instead of being nice and friendly I will freak out and rap my cane against the arm rest if someone else sits in it. 

Advertisements

7 Tips to Make Friends…without being creepy.

Living Abroad, Uncategorized

A few weeks ago, Cécile, from the always fabulous Trying to be Conscious, passed on the “One Lovely Blog Award” to me (http://tryingtobeconscious.wordpress.com/2012/05/29/a-little-sugar-in-my-bowl/).  Thanks so much Cécile!!  If you haven’t already, you should all check out her blog, always funny and always spot on!

As with most awards, this one comes with a few rules.  First of all, I need to link back to the blog which awarded me, then pass on the award to up to 15 other blogs, and finally share 7 things about myself.   Per usual, I’m going to change it up slightly and instead of sharing 7 things about me, I’m going to share a bit of advice by listing what I believe to be the 7 best ways to make friends at bars.

Okay, so don’t get the wrong idea.  I’m not talking about creepily trying to hit on people but rather tips on how to approach a group of people or start a conversation with someone who looks like they could be fun.  When you move to a new country, city, etc. it can be difficult to figure out how to meet people to hang out with.  I mean, sure if you are into kickball leagues and book clubs you will be just fine, but what about the slackers like me (and MB…sorry honey: truth gun)?  We don’t “do” organized activities.  We like to talk about them and say how great they sound and say “totally send us the info and we will join up” but yeah…we don’t do that.  Instead, we either sit on the couch and watch TV or we go to bars.  So, how do we find like-minded slackers?  Well, here ya go…

Top 7 ways to meet strangers out at bars:

  • Sit at the bar!  Really, I can’t stress this enough; it should be number 1 on this list.  You are never going to meet anyone sitting at a table; in fact, I would go so far as to say that nothing even remotely interesting is going to happen to you there.  It makes me crazy when I come into a bar and my friends all want to sit in some back corner.  Bar going is like a sport to me, a sport in which I try to see how many interesting people I can talk to in a night.  I feel as though this is the true spirit of the bar and thus cannot understand those who besmirch this spirit by being table dwellers.  It is such an easy way to start a conversation because you are naturally forced into periods of waiting with complete strangers.  You can turn to the person next to you and whine about how long the bartender is taking or talk about how awesome the bartender is or make fun of someone in the bar who has just done something ridiculous.  While in this unique waiting period it is completely acceptable to speak to anyone without it being creepy and it is a great way to make new friends.
  • Offer to take pictures.  First of all, it’s a nice thing to do, but second of all, another great ice-breaker.  You see a group of people who look like they are a lot of fun and have a camera out, just offer!  Once in Bologna, I did this for a table next to us and within about 15 minutes we had pulled our tables together, enjoyed a meal, and ended up hanging out with them for the rest of the evening.  With just a “click” we managed to form our own clique!  “That joke was so lame.  I can’t believe I’m even going to keep reading after that.  I mean, cameras don’t even “click” anymore.  Do you remember those “Le Clic”* cameras from the 80’s.  Those were awesome.” 
  • Talk loudly.  Okay, every American does this anyway so to my American readers you can skip this one; BUT for the rest of you, pay attention.  Granted, talking loudly can be really annoying so you have to gauge it just right, however, if you can figure out the correct balance it can be an excellent way to meet people…especially if you are funny or interesting (boring people should also skip this step).  For instance, basically every single time my best friend and I leave the house we end up having funny exchanges with strangers who have overheard our absurd (and yes, hilarious – high five, friend) chatter.

“Sorry,” says the sales lady to us.  “I’m just laughing because everything you are saying is so true!”

“Right?”  My friend responds.  “Fifity Shades of Grey is so weird and over-rated but it really does make you want to have sex.”

We talked with this sales lady for almost 40 minutes after already purchasing our clothes.

  • Be a smoker.  “Oh my god!  Did she just write that?  So SO inappropriate.”  Yeah, yeah, I know but I’m convinced that somewhere there must be a statistic about smokers making friends more easily than non-smokers.  I mean, let’s think about this for a second, we they are forced outside in small groups often without any music or bar, so no distractions, in which conversations with strangers can be easily induced.  I mean, good grief, all you have to do is ask for a lighter and BAM! CONVERSATION.  But okay, if you don’t want to risk your life and your health than you can always find the people who are left behind by their smoking friends and bond over the fact that they are all idiots.
  • Be polite.  You Mother was right, you will catch more bees with honey; and if you are interested in bee-catching or friend-making then be sweet!  Many times, I have started a conversation by using a simple “excuse me” or by picking up someone’s jacket or catching a purse that is falling off a chair.  People appreciate it and it can easily serve as your “in”.  Talk about how annoying it is that the backs of the chairs are round so things won’t stay on them or show them the hooks underneath the bar (I assume that of course you are AT THE BAR) where they can hang things.  Everyone likes a helping hand and it is a good way to make a great first impression.
  • Find the loners.  Often in my travels I have found myself sitting alone at a bar and I would have been thrilled to have a group of strangers come and ask me to join their party.  “What?  Doesn’t she know about stranger danger?  This is bad advice.”  If you are in the mood to make some new friends this can be a great way to do it.  Since you and your friends are obviously standing at the bar (and if the loner is smart then they are as well) then you can easily ask if this person feels like joining.  Maybe they will think you are crazy, maybe they will turn out to be crazy themselves, or maybe you will end up meeting someone really cool who ends up being a long-term friend…believe me, it happens.
  • Find something in common.  This is the most important of all of these little tips and is really the whole point of the exercise anyway, isn’t it?  To meet someone who you find interesting or shares an interest that you have.  Having something in common is what puts people at ease.  So use any one of these methods or a combination and maybe you will stumble across someone who just moved to your town, who is from a different country, who speaks a different native language, and who also thinks that Back to the Future III was completely under-rated and actually an amazing film.  Hey, it could happen!

Good hunting!  (sorry, just finished Battlestar Galactica)

Now for the fun part – getting to pass this award on!

* In case you have no idea what I am talking about: http://www.ebay.com/itm/Le-Clic-110-Point-and-Shoot-Camera-with-built-in-flash-/221050012094?pt=Film_Cameras&hash=item33779b81be  This is the exact model of the one I had; I am sure that shortly it will be sported by some 20-something hipster as opposed to a rockin’ 8 year old with leggings, a puff-paint t-shirt, and wicked big-bow headband.  That’s right, I was rad.

The Long Goodbye

Adjusting to France

“Um, I think I’ll just wait in the car.”  I say this to my American friend who is in town visiting.  We are in Chateauneuf du Pape and she and MB are about to go inside and pay the nice family who owns the B&B we stayed at.

“Are you sure?”  My friend asks me.

“Oh yeah, I’m good here.  You two go ahead.”  I smile at her.

“Alrighty, we’ll be back in a minute!”

“Oh, I doubt that,” I think to myself.  “I seriously doubt that.”

French goodbyes are not what I am accustomed to.  I am American; there, we just get up, say thank you, and leave; if it involves friends or family then there could be hugging.  That’s about it; conversation happens in advance of the goodbye.  In France, they do things differently.  No one is worried about rushing off, so they take their time…sometimes, a very long time.

Often, when I do finally manage to extricate myself from these situations I am sweating slightly and have an increased heart rate, possibly the beginning stages of a panic attack.  These long, drawn out goodbyes make me crazy.  They test three inherent parts of my personality against one another:  1) my absolute abhorrence to being rude, 2) my complete and utter lack of patience, 3) my intense hatred of boredom.

A typical scenario might progress somewhat like this:

We get up to leave and our hosts follow us to the door.

“Boh…bah merci, huh?”  MB says to our hosts.  “It was so good to see you, we should get together more often, blah blah blah (insert: the stuff you always say when you leave your friends).”

They return the sentiment.

We kiss them and any other remaining guests goodbye, they kiss us goodbye.  We open the door.  We stand in the doorway.

NOW –This is the moment when an American would depart…but we are in France.

“I Hope it’s not raining outside,” says the host.

“Ugh, did you see that horrible April we’ve had,” says his partner, chiming in.

“I know,” says MB.   “March was great but April, what a nightmare!”

I am standing around waiting, wondering what is happening.  We’ve just finished a four hour evening of cocktails and dinner; couldn’t we have covered this earlier?  Finally, I walk through the door in order to give MB the signal to wrap it up (he is still discussing the weather).

“Alright, well bye then,” I offer once more, cheerfully.  “This was really wonderful; I loved everything!”  I throw in a little extra niceness so that I can assure myself I am being super polite.  I mean, I did have a good time; I am just ready for it to end now.

MB is still inside and is about to join me.  I can taste the freedom; suddenly, another guest from inside pipes up.

“By the way, how’s work?”  He is looking at MB.

NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!! 

MB turns to him and begins, yet another, conversation.  I stand politely, listening.

“So, how have you been?”

ACK!  I’ve been attacked!

“You like France?”

“Are you joking,” I think to myself, looking at the party guest speaking to me.  “You haven’t spoken to me the entire evening, why now?  When I am literally half-way in the hallway!  I would have loved to chat with you earlier and make friends, you seem nice; but not at 2am, in a hallway, after a four-course extravaganza!”

… 20 minutes later.

MB and I have both completed our conversations and are once more heading towards the exit.

“Before leaving, you’re gonna take a bit of that chocolate cake with you, yes,” our host asks.

I start to wonder if we will ever get out of here.

“Nooo, no, no, it’s fine, really,” says MB.

“No, we insist! Jean! Cut a bit of chocolate cake and put it in a ziplock bag; what do you mean we don’t have ziplock bags anymore? Find something!”

… 10 minutes later.

We are both outside the door, cake in hand.

“Okay, so goodbye then,” call our hosts.

“Bye,” we say.

“Oh, and don’t forget to vote on Sunday!”

“Did you see this campaign,” MB returns.

What is happening

What do you think is going to happen there?”

Several voices pipe up, speaking in animated tones.

If I still had the energy I would give MB my santé death stare lasers eyes but it is too late.  I crumple to the floor and pass out from “goodbye fatigue” while the French people stand around continuing to talk.

*A big thanks to MB who provided many of the ideas for this post!

You Speakin’ in English?

Learning French, Living Abroad

On an afternoon out with a one of our recent visitors, we were walking down the street speaking in English.  At one point, we wandered by a group of young men, all speaking in French, as we got close, one of them said, quite loudly, “Hello!  How are you?”  We smiled back but kept walking.  Later, we walked by an elderly gentlemen who was looking out his window, he was speaking to someone in the back of the house in French, but just as we passed, I heard a distinct “Hello!”  I said “Hello” back and smiled; he seemed satisfied.

This is a scenario that happens often.  If I am wandering the market with an English-speaking friend, the vendor might give me the price in English or say “thank you” instead of “merci”, even though I will speak to him in French.  Once, when I was standing in the line for the fromagerie with another Anglo, the young man in front of us turned around and explained every cheese that we should try and why…in perfect English.

This rarely happens when I am alone, even though it will be obvious that I am definitely an English speaker (maybe it’s a kind of tough love?); but when I am with other Anglos, it happens all the time.  I can imagine the conversations with their friends after we walk by…

“What?  You didn’t know I speak English.  I mean, doesn’t everyone speak English?  Mon dieu, the English can speak English so you know it cannot be hard.”

We walk by again.

“Hello,” waving wildly at us.  “I am fine, yes friends, good day!”

We smile awkwardly and keep walking.

”See?”  He will say this to his friends.  “I told you!”

Another visitor in from out of town was at the market on her first day in France.  She was standing in a crowded stall and at some point another patron gave her a gentle nudge so as to pass by on the aisle.

“Oh – sorry! ‘Scuze! Uh crap, pardon,” she said, alarmed.  She couldn’t quite remember the exact phrase and I could tell she was a bit unnerved by it.

The elderly man who had nudged past smiled kindly and professed, quite loudly, “you’re welcome!”  And then went on to choose his vegetables, looking extremely pleased with himself.  I could practically hear his internal thoughts, “nailed it!”

This exchange made me laugh and my friend looked utterly confused.  The man had no idea what he had actually said but he knew it was English and that was enough for him.

I know the reasons for these little tidbits of English being thrown around.  Mainly it is people excited to have the opportunity to practice speaking or in the case of the young men, excited to try to chat some girls up (…that’s right, ego, I said it) but it doesn’t really matter what the reason is; it always feels good and it always makes me smile.  When you are in a foreign country, hearing a bit of your mother tongue is sort of like someone winking at you or saying “cheers” without actually saying it.  It’s an unsolicited “you’re welcome” when you haven’t yet said “thank you”.

The 7 Stages of an Awkward Dinner

Holidays in France

MB found the place online and it looked charming, a 15th century farmhouse in the country, excellent reviews on trip advisor, and only thirty minutes from town.  What could possibly go wrong?  So we packed our little overnight bags, hopped in the car, and made our way out of the city for a relaxing Saturday in the country. 

After a half hour and a couple of wrong turns we finally made our way to the gate of the B&B.  It was night time and we couldn’t see much but all seemed promising.  We were ushered in by the effusive and friendly hostess who quickly showed us to our rooms along with another couple.  The place was beautiful, there was stone work and exposed beams, murals on the wall, a gorgeous large wooden table–wait a minute!

Stage 1: DENIAL

MB shut the door to our room and turned to me.

“Oh la la la la…”  He put his hand to his head.

“What?!”  Everything had seemed alright to me.

“That table, you saw the table?”

“Yeah, so wha—oh crap.”

“Yeah.”

“You think?”  I asked, my voice ridden with panic.  “Surely not, no way, this place is so nice, that would be totally weird.” 

Stage 2: GUILT

A half hour later we descended with our plan to find out whether the dinner would be at the table or if there was another dining room.  After ordering a couple of glasses of wine from the hostess (which she seemed unaccustomed to…we were still in France, right?), MB casually asked if this was where we came for dinner. 

“Ah oui,” she trilled.  “At seven o’clock!”  

Our fate was sealed.

We returned upstairs, despondent in our grief. 

“This isn’t going to be relaxing at all!”  I cried.

“I know, this is terrible.  I am not in the mood for this, I don’t want to talk to strangers.”

“I can’t talk to strangers, oh my god, this is going to be horrible!”

“I never should have booked this place.  I’m so sorry.”

“It’s not your fault, how are you supposed to know that it was going to be like this?  It is my fault; I’m the one who wanted to get out of town.”

“We will just have to get through this together.”  MB holds me tightly.

Stage 3: BARGAINING

 “Maybe, maybe we can go down early and eat before everyone else?”  MB looks at me hopefully.

“You think?  What if we just have to sit at the table and wait…then it will just prolong it!”

“It is worth a try, yes?”

Suddenly, we hear the door down the hall open.

“NON!”  MB looks stricken.  “They have already left!”

“This sucks!  Why do we have to do this?  It is total bullsh-t!  I mean, don’t people come to these places to relax?  What is relaxing about this?”  I am becoming progressively defiant.

“I know, it is ridiculous, who are the people who want to do this?”

Stage 4: DEPRESSION

Finally, we arrive at the table downstairs.  It is set for the exact number of guests and has us all squeezed in, elbow to elbow.  The older couple down the hall from us is already seated. 

“Bonjour.”

“Bonjour.”

“Bonjour.”

“Bonjour.”

Sigh.

We take our seats and look at each other across the table, MB is silently questioning me and I am questioning right back.  The hostess is nowhere to be found.

In French

“So, where are you from?”  MB asks the couple.

“Lyon,” responds the man.

“Ah.”  MB waits to see if there will be more.  “We are in from Grenoble.”

“Ah,” says the man. 

“So, what do you do?”  MB looks at the couple.

The woman responds first.  “I am a teacher.”

MB waits.  Nothing.

“What grade is it that you teach?”

“9-12”

“And you like it?”

“Yes.”

The couple looks at MB expectantly; he has now become proprietor of the conversation.  He looks at me desperately.  “I can’t help you,” I say with my eyes, “We are trapped, there is no way out.”

Stage 5: UPWARD TURN

Finally the hostess appears with a much appreciated bottle of wine, which we are put in the awkward position of splitting with our new found acquaintances.  Another woman descends from upstairs with her dog and sits at the far end of the table, as far away from everyone as possible, I stare at her enviously.  Then, suddenly, the doors open and a frosty chill enters the room…darkness falls upon the table as couple #2 sits down.

The woman, almost immediately, bursts into caustic laughter before proceeding on a tirade complaining about everything from the wine selection, to the food, to the fact that we all had to sit together.  She then goes on to spend the rest of the dinner making sour faces and alienating the entire table while her companion makes half-hearted attempts at salvaging the situation. 

All of a sudden, the first couple seems like long lost friends as we find ourselves all making eye contact across the table, communicating our disbelief at her behaviour (which seemed to only exacerbate it further).  We are now comrades, struggling through the war together.

Stage 6: RECONSTRUCTION

Finally…finally, the dessert course is brought out.  I look at MB longingly; I can already tell that I am stuck in one of those French “no one knows how to leave the table” situations.  “Get up,” I think.  “Get up, for the love of GOD, don’t ask another—“  Too late, MB was already off asking couple #1 another question that is answered with two words. 

Then it hits me, EUREKA!  Cigarette!

I look at MB and nod toward the outside patio.  I see the comprehension on his face.

“Ah, excuse us, we will go and have a cigarette now.”

We both get up from the table and walk to the adjoining patio. 

“Oh my god,” I breath.  “That was horrible.”

“After this, we just say goodnight, don’t sit back down.  We’re going to make a run for it.”  MB looks at me seriously. 

“Got it.”

As soon as MB stubs out his cigarette, we are back inside picking up our coats and heading upstairs, while desperate eyes follow us out.  The hostess has now joined the table and has them all trapped in forced merriment. 

Stage 7: ACCEPTANCE

“Pfff…I am so happy that is over.”  MB flops on the bed.

“Me too,” I turn to look at him.  “But, how are we going to do it again in the morning?”

“I think tomorrow we skip breakfast.”

The Translation of Cool

Learning French

“He brushed his lips to hers, a teaching, then a sinking, sinking until it was drowning deep.  His hands were on her, reminding her what it had been, confusing her with what is was now.

Strong, hard –“ *

I hear a beep and click my Ipod off.  The treadmill starts the cool down phase as I look around warily, wondering if anyone has suspected that I am listening to sexy romance novels while at the gym.  It is one of my secret shames that I absolutely adore these types of books and I’m always terrified that someone will somehow know that I am out in public listening to stories about “throbbing members”.

After the gym, I stop in at the Franprix grocery store to pick up something for dinner.  The same cashier who is always there and always wants to talk is at the register.  While he is a very congenial fellow, he sort of gets on my nerves; so I try to look as unapproachable as possible, ear buds in.

Him:  Bonjour!!!!!!

Me:  Bonjour.  (accompanied by a quick no-nonsense smile)

This conversation was entirely in French.

Him:  So, you are very serious this morning.

Me:  Yes, it is necessary for the gym.

What does that even mean?

Him:  Ah yes, I understand.

I guess he gets it.

I notice the old lady behind me in line soaking up every word of our conversation.

Him:  So, what music are you listening to?

Me:  Ah no, I am listening to a book, not music.

Him:  What book?

Slight pause.  Think, you fool, think!

Me:  Nora Roberts.

Epic choke.

The old lady behind me starts laughing.  A wave of embarrassed heat crosses my face.

Me:  I know it is not great literature!

I am feeling a desperate need to explain myself – suddenly, I’m the husband saying he just bought Playboy for the articles.

Him:  It is okay.

He catches the eye of the old lady behind me and winks.  I am the laughing stalk of the Franprix.

It is very hard to be cool in a foreign language.  Normally, in such a situation, I would have been able to come up with something brilliant:

Him:  What are you listening to?

I raise a hand for silence as I switch off my Ipod…oozing cool.

Me:  What was that?  (I smile condescendingly)

Him:  I was wondering what you are listening to.

Me:   Tolstoy, War and Peace…so powerful.

Him:  (just silence and respect)

This is how these conversations usually go…when I’m not frantically trying to figure out how to formulate a sentence in French.  However, I have found that my ability for blarney (and I kissed that creepy stone http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blarney_Stone) has been diminished entirely by my non-ability in French.  My brain is so busy scrambling around, searching for vocabulary while simultaneously trying to concentrate on what is being said that it can’t possibly take the time to worry about being cool!

The ramifications of this are substantial.  Usually, upon first meeting someone, I can fool them into thinking I’m cool for at least a month or so before my inner dork makes its appearance and they realize they’ve been duped.  But now, the curtain has been drawn; I am exposed:

“I LOVE NORA ROBERTS – WHILE FOMULAIC AND PREDICTABLE, I FIND HER BOOKS HUGELY SATISFYING!”

Ahhh!  Shame spiral.

So, be forewarned. While you might think it sounds like the epitome of cool to move to a foreign country, the truth of the matter is that ‘cool’ is the hardest thing to translate.

* Excerpt from Nora Roberts ‘Black Hills’

The Girl in the Plastic Bubble

Learning French

“Foux da fa fa?”  Says one girl.*

“Feau de foux!  Foux da fa fa fa fa,” replies the boy she is talking to.

“Mais oui, a le feau de foux a fa fa.  Ceau le le le foux de fa fa fa.”

All of France has started to sound like a Flight of the Conchords song.

“Alors, foux da fa fa?”

“Baby?”  MB is looking at me questioningly.  I am bouncing my head slightly while singing internally.

“What?”  I look around startled and he nods his head toward the girl next to us.

“Oh!  Désolé,” I say to her, a bit embarrassed.  “Répéter s’il te plaît?”

“What is it that you do while you are in France?”  The girl replies to me in English.

I sigh.  I would have understood her question in French; I just wasn’t listening.

After six months in France, I have finally managed to perfect the ‘zone-out’.

Of course, when we first arrive to parties, there will be the obligatory conversations; just basic niceties that will last about ten minutes.  After the first half-hour of the party, however, fewer and fewer people are speaking to me so I just climb into my bubble.  It’s not a rude thing.  For them, it is frustrating to try to struggle through a slow conversation in basic French with the new girl (not exactly the recipe for a rockin’ time at a party).   And for me, it’s just as exhausting; all that concentration, trying to separate words only to understand the sentence thirty seconds too late and realize that the conversation has moved on.   In the past I would try to fake it, you know, nod when others nod or laugh when other laugh.  But eventually, that always ends up backfiring and you realize that you have just agreed that Stalin wasn’t all that bad and that actually the situation in Darfur is hilarious.  Talk about awkward.

Sometimes there will be children or teenagers at the party and that usually works out well.  They all speak perfect English and are usually pretty happy to practice with the ‘cool’ American (before the French hit adulthood, they still think we are cool).  They will sidle up to me at the table and give me that clear, quiet look of comprehension:  Yes, we understand; no one talks to us either. 

Therefore, until I perfect my French, I am relegated to my bubble or to the children’s table (not such a bad fate, the children’s table…beware, they pick up on everything).  So, if you speak to me and I seem to ignore you, don’t take it personally; I just don’t know what ‘foux da fa fa’ means!

*Credit where credit is due:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X5hrUGFhsXo

Will you be my friend? Check ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

Adjusting to France

 “What are you doing?”  I bury my face in my hands.  “Oh my god, you are so embarrassing!”

“Quoi?” replies my boyfriend (his typical response to everything).  He is standing on the edge of a group of people at a bar, looking at them but saying nothing.

“You are practically stalking them, stop!  Seriously, come back to the table.”  I am whispering in that loud, half-scream whisper, my eyes widened for impact. 

 “What is your problem?  I was trying to see what they were saying.  They seem cool.”  He says, once he has reluctantly returned to our table. 

“I know they seem cool but you can’t force it!  You have to let them come to us, ya know?”  I say this just as someone from the group looks our way.  I flash the supposed “cool kid” an overly friendly smile and get nothing in return.  “Ugh.  This place is stupid; we’re not going to meet anyone.”

 “Hey, what about that guy we met last weekend, let’s text him,” my boyfriend suggests.

“I don’t know; do you think it’s too soon?  I don’t want to scare him off.”

“Yeah, maybe…” 

We take a sip of wine and ponder this momentarily.

“No, I mean, he seemed to like us, right?  I think we can text.” 

Ahhh…the human ability to rationalize.  

I have found that making friends in a new city is very much like trying to date.  You go to the bars that you think the desired people will be, and then sit close to them in hopes of there being some incident that will allow you to start a conversation; you smile too easily and too often at too many people.  You force yourself to go out even when you are tired because you might meet someone, and you think hard about when and under what pretext you should contact a new person so that you don’t seem too needy.

My boyfriend and I are currently in the midst of this struggle, constantly trying to think of ways that we can meet more people.  But, the reality is that we just have to be patient and go with the flow.  The general consensus seems to be that it takes about 3-6 months to make friends when you move to a new city (a period of time that you magically forget ever existed after you have made friends) and you never know how it is going to happen.  I’ve met friends at apartment visits, while getting pedicures, even a walk around the block has turned into an impromptu dinner with strangers.  You can’t predict the “when” or the “how” but it is always when you least expect it. 

So, we will continue to endure and await the unexpected, but until then, stay alert and watch out, we might be stalking at a bar near you.

Small Victories

Adjusting to France, Learning French

“Immersion is the best and easiest way to learn a foreign language,” everyone says.  This may be true in the long run, but in the short term it’s madness.  You have to battle anxiety just to take a walk around the neighborhood for fear that someone might speak to you.  Clearly this opinion is espoused by people who either have an unhealthy amount of self-confidence, or have never done it.  Now yes, I listened to my CDs relentlessly before coming, and I thought that I knew enough to get around, but in real life no one speaks like they do on language CDs.  Hearing a woman repeat the word ‘l’appartement’ 50 times with perfect enunciation does nothing for me when I hear people use it in conversation.  Last week, we had a maid come to clean our ‘appartement’ and she and I had so much trouble understanding each other that I eventually went to google-translate and typed my question in and showed it to her.  “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

So when I arrived at my Boucher’s yesterday and he began peppering me with questions I was, understandably, unnerved.  I froze, my palms sweating, my mind racing.  Please God, don’t let me be the disappointing foreigner (insert: American) who hasn’t bothered to learn the language!  Desperately I searched my mind trying to pick up a word or two out of the sentences that I understood so that I could figure out what he was asking me (note: I would like to thank my Elementary School teachers for enforcing  the importance of context clues upon me).  Then, like the sun from behind the clouds, recognition dawned in my brain:  he wanted to know how long I had been here.  By some miracle, I answered…perfectly.  He understood me and continued with the questions until we had completed a civil and relatively informative conversation.  YES!

“Okay,” you might be thinking.  “You spoke to your butcher; that’s totally amazing.” (eye roll)

Well.  It is. 

This is one of the great things about traveling and moving overseas that no one ever tells you about and which I am finding even more true when there is a language barrier:  you get to become a child again (in the best sense, not in the ‘people telling you what to do all the time’ sense).  Managing to accomplish little tasks is a big deal and feels amazing!  When you have just moved to a new country and you are figuring things out, everything is a triumph.  When you figure out how to open your bank account or set up your cell phone; you feel impressed with yourself.  You may have lived in a large and complicated city back home, you may have street smarts, but the first time you navigate the subway or tram system in your new town you will give yourself a pat on the back.  When a stranger asks you for directions and you can give them you will feel oh-so-cool.  And yes, the first time you manage to understand what someone is saying and how to respond to them you will feel like skipping all the way home. 

It’s a beautiful reminder that travel gives you; the reminder to appreciate yourself and your ability to adapt and learn things.  The reminder to challenge yourself, come what may!  As a child we have these moments all the time; every new thing we learn fills us with a sense of pride and elation at our own ability to have accomplished something.  And why should that ever change? 

So, merci Monsieur Boucher, I appreciate the gentle reminder…oh and the caillettes were good too!