Those three little French words
No matter how long I stay in France, there are certain expressions that will never have the same meaning in French as they do in English.
I have dated French men for much longer than I have anglophones, but whenever I hear the words ‘je t’aime’, it never has the same topsy-turvy feeling. It doesn’t send your heart to your knees and your knees to your shoulders and your head upside down the way that the very first ‘I love you’ of a new relationship does.
Most bilingual people I know claim that there are certain elements of your first language – no matter how long you stay – that remain. I have to agree; math is always done in English, even if I’m speaking French. Anger, annoyance or pain are almost always in English as well. When my French boyfriend hears me utter French gros mots, he can’t help laughing – not because I say it wrong, but because I never say it at all.
But those are small things; the little hitches that exist in an international lifestyle. Like learning a new bank account number, or remembering that your local supermarket is closed every Sunday promptly at noon. Those are things that I could learn to live with.
What I find daunting now – perhaps not scary, but definitely intimidating – is that my life happens in two cultures, and ‘I love you’ isn’t the half of it.
We grow up in a world that is inundated with general culture: facts and ideas and stories that we come to expect our peers to be familiar with. Maybe not everyone had the Disney channel or watched ‘Nick at Night’ or played ‘Red Rover’. But some sort of cultural common ground is always quickly established in groups of people from the same country.
Moving to France pulled the cultural rug out from under me. Sitting around the bar table with friends, trying to follow the conversation, went so much further than just understanding words.
The old advertisements that played on Channel 3 were lost on me. We had “Wazzaaaaap?” and “A dingo ate my baby!” The theme songs of French contemporaries of ‘Saved by the Bell’ and ‘Full House’ were unfamiliar and strange.
But it runs deeper still. It’s one thing to feel as though most conversations are an endless inside joke. It’s quite another to realize that you don’t share the same cultural foundations as the people who are going to become your de facto family, with real family so far away.
There are words that carry meaning – ‘once upon a time’ and ‘happily ever after’. And, ‘I love you’.
It’s strange to think that the feeling of waiting and hoping for the eventual ‘I love you’ that comes after months of shyly skating around it doesn’t exist in France. The French hand out ‘je t’aime’ like ‘hello’; like ‘you’re cute’. The knee-shaking, heart swelling feeling of ‘I love you’ after waiting for weeks is a feeling, like so many others, that remains blocked between two cultures: the one I come from and the one I chose.
1. Camdiluv ?, on Flickr
2. CatherineSherer, on Flickr
3. Jennuine Captures, on Flickr
4. Oh Paris, on Flickr