La vie française … one year on
It was one year ago that my flight arrived in Paris.
I landed amidst the anticipation and optimism that spring heralds in northern France, before weeks of relentless summer rain dashes hopes of picnic lunches and healthy complexions.
I was full of anticipation (of the unknown and the known-but-not-understood) and optimism – that my mere presence in France would immediately bless me with a sense of style, that I would magically shrink to a size 6, and that I would master the pronunciation of the French ‘R’.
Alas, while my anticipation was not misplaced – for the unknown rarely ceased to trip me on a daily basis – my optimism proved to be a mere delusion.
I was fortunate in my preparedness for foreign life. Having lived in other countries, I already understood the uneasiness that accompanies those early struggles with language and culture, and I had a partner with me – a native, at that! There was no pressure to obtain a job, a house or a car.
However for every memory I have of sunlit strolls around the lake, of champagne apéros and fields blanketed in wildflowers, of maroilles after lunch and saucisson before dinner, I have other memories, just as intense, of my struggle to adapt.
The faux-pas, the inadvertent use of gros mots in polite company, those kisses that I shouldn’t have given (to a random stranger), and those that I should have but didn’t. Those times when I used tu when I should have used vous and the time when I told a young thief in Paris “va te faire foutre” as he slid his hand in my bag – only because I had not yet learned a more polite alternative.
As the blue skies of spring waned into the grey skies of summer and the sun took off for its annual leave, those initial struggles compounded.
They were no longer so frequently interspersed with the charm of exploring the outdoors. I struggled to cook French food and strained to find ingredients to cook non-French cuisine. The shop assistants were unhelpful and people turned up at 5 pm every day, ready to drink.
Then, as the rain lifted, we entered our Indian summer; things began to get a little easier. I learned to plan my day around the limited opening hours of shops, rather than expecting them to remain open on the off-chance that I should need some shampoo at precisely 1.20 pm.
When people spoke to me, I understood. What’s more, I no longer translated in my head before speaking – words simply tumbled out without my quite knowing how it had happened. I became less self-conscious in my kissing, more proactive in my hospitality. When neighbours turned up uninvited for an apéro, I no longer inwardly groaned; in fact, when they didn’t turn up, I’d invite myself chez eux.
So, one year on, I’m still dreadfully unstylish, I’m not a size 6 and I still can’t pronounce the ‘R’.
I could live in France for the rest of my life and would still not be completely Frenchified – I don’t need the letter box drops from the FN to remind me of that.
What I have, though, is a basis for communicating with my French family and friends, and a limited ability to understand why they behave the way the do – and what, therefore, is the appropriate behaviour for me.
Perhaps more importantly though, I can serve a mean glass of champagne, I can sing along to Mano Solo without making up 90% of the lyrics and I know my neck (le cou) from my behind (le cul)!Image credits:
1. Northern France in Spring: ateliermaisonconti.blogspot.com
2. French pronunciation of the ‘Louvre’: studyarthistory.com
3. A wildflower during Spring: Shannon Guy
4. French apéro: lapetitecucina.wordpress.com
5. How to serve a mean champagne: Shannon Guy
This is a great article, Shannon! I can definitely relate to the issues you had, but also the sense of achievement as things started to click. I’m glad you thought your time in France was worthwhile. I sometimes think we Anglophones spend a bit too much time worrying about ‘Frenchifying’ ourselves and it’s good to realise that retaining some of our Anglophone characteristics can be charming, too! 🙂
Thanks, Sarah – no chance of me losing my Anglophone characteristics though it is debatable whether mine have much charm!