Merci Madame, Gracias Too

Living every day in a cocoon of French can get old. It is tempting

to remove yourself, to be tired and frustrated by it. But that only

creates a downward spiral into no French, no communication, loneliness

and isolation.

Grocery store French just doesn’t cut it anymore; isn’t enough of a

connection to people. And when you get out of practice, say on school

holidays, it can seem even more difficult to break through and say what

you want to say. As Michele always said, ‘the more you know, the less

you think you know’. And that’s a good thing. Really. Because it makes

you want to learn more, keep going, express yourself more fully.

It is also frustrating as hell.

I could carry on all day long with the basics. And I would sound like a

five year-old. Something like, ‘I like there…Sorry, I have tired

today…Too far away words in my head…It makes cold and I like not

it.’ You get the idea. I joke, but I wonder how I must sound to someone

who really does speak French and how on earth they keep from laughing.

Which they don’t ever do. They always happily encourage and nod and move

me along the path of conversation, holding my hand.

It’s usually just when you’re feeling like closing your ears and mind to the language that someone helps you open them again.

And so it was for me last week at the Middlest’s football practice. I

felt closed off and stood at the fence watching and daydreaming,

thinking how much I missed hearing English and how hard this is

sometimes. Just then an older woman walked by and caught my eye. She

smiled at me and started talking. And as she spoke she touched me; on

the arm, hand, patting her words into me. It made me feel warm. After a

few sentences of somewhat understanding her, my brain did a flip…I

realized she was not speaking just French, but Spanish too. I heard the

Spanish lisp and the familiar d for r sound of ‘mira’. So, we

carried on that way. Her doing most of the talking; moving effortlessly

between French and Spanish, patting, smiling, warming me. As she

continued on her exercise circuit around the football pitch she hugged

me, ‘a bien tot’, ‘hasta luego’. Kindness emanating from her regardless of language.

It is times like this when I am thankful that I am open. I would miss

out on so many gifts if I tunneled down and buried my head in

self-pitying English.

Once at a meeting with Ma Fille’s teacher she said something that

struck a nerve, ‘It can be like a prison for you not to understand or

communicate.’ And she is right. It can. Only I don’t want to be

imprisoned by my ignorance so I force myself out. Open. Bumbling and

stumbling. No matter what.

When people ask if we would ever move back to the UK, I can’t help thinking that I would actually miss the daily challenge of living and working in a second language!

Thanks Kathryn. It’s nice to know we all have the same feelings and challenges…as well as rewards! I’m getting better every day and what the heck, it’s part of the fun.

Great post Aidan - I for one can empathise, there are mornings when it would be much simpler to shut the doors and shutters. But then we’d miss out on the feeling of success when, finally,we’re understood!