Much of mastering a language is pronunciation. I know this, because I am often met with ‘quoi,’ when I speak in what I believe is ‘my best French’. Quoi, being a form of ‘what’ or ‘why’ is often a really hard word to swallow when I’m already sweating and feeling vulnerable in my delivery. But I’m slowly learning that I needn’t be so bothered by this apparent rudeness, it is sort of like saying ‘huh’ in English, but as a little girl I was always taught to never say ‘what’ for any reason WHAT so ever.
Most days I get a ‘quoi’ with my coffee (or my basket, or bucket, or phone, or paperwork or anything for that matter) and it usually married with a wince of the face or a raised brow, followed by a barrage of words- 30% of which I can claim to almost understand. Most days I sweat, curse myself and then skip a bit when I have a mini triumph.
Reading French is so much easier than speaking French, as is writing. With both, I can take all the time in the world to re-read, re-type and slowly balance out what I am trying to understand or say (through an email perhaps, or when reading the daily news). My newest addiction, is watching French films where I add French subtitles – this way, I can watch while I read and really understand how different the words sound when spoken, as opposed to the way in which we read them. It’s great for my dialogue as well – much of what I have learnt in French school is ‘regimented’ French and a dead giveaway to anyone with the power to hand me an English menu or a will to wish me ‘a good day.’ I don’t want ‘have a good day,’ I want a ‘bonne journée’ or ‘bonne soirée’ – I know beggars can’t be choosers, but I’m working towards choice over begging.
Last week I wrote an email as a follow up to a quick catch up I’d had as part of my enrolment at the Foundation Robert de Sorbon where I will study from September – December. Feeling well versed and triumphant, I wrote that I was sorry about the fact that I had spoken French like a child and the response to my email came with smiley emojis and a reminder that I needn’t worry, and was not without a gentle reminder that what I had actually written was, ‘I’m sorry, but I speak to underaged children.’ Much as I absolutely love kids, this was not the message I was trying to get across and certainly not with creepy undertones.
Speaking of children, I spent the better part of all of this morning in the post office sending letters to my beloved little nephews and godchildren, in a completely self interested bid that they won’t forget me. I love the guy at my local post office, mainly because he makes no effort what so ever to speak to me in English, but he also has a killer goatee and he also struts a lot. I nod and say ‘oui’ to all of his questions as I stare at him as I listen intently. Today, what I thought he said was ‘are these all going to Australia,’ to which I replied ‘yes,’ but what he had said was ‘have you filled in all the required forms for these parcels going to Australia.’ I hadn’t, because his ‘coll-egg’ (I love the way French people say colleague) had told me I only had to fill out a form for two of the four parcels. We continued in a further (confused) exchange and I know that he was probably thinking ‘not you again,’ but I hope that he knows how much I appreciate his training, and I also hope that nothing ever changes in my post office interludes. We’ve been dealing with each other on and off for almost three years now, and I enjoy his company and the way he struts around with a great deal of self importance. And, so he should.
My basket was full when I left home this morning, and as I write, it’s almost empty after a day spent completing jobs that are now ticked off my list. Today I’ve taken different routes to each destination and tonight, I am quietly rejoicing in the fact that when I sit a cafe table for lunches, or dinners, I’m now (three out of five times) delivered a French menu and brought a carafe of tap water. I almost perished when I first started this adventure, as I waited, and waited and waited for water to arrive, only to realise that as a tourist I was always going to be given one option- a bottle of Evian charged at a rate higher than your average mortgage. I don’t really actually even really like bottled water, preferring the recycled water from the tap, and in a state of resistance in this water war, I’d sit and gaze at French people being delivered ‘carafe d’eau,’ in complete wonderment- how was I going to ever graduate into that league? I feel closer this week, and much as I still get raised brows and the odd ‘quoi,’ the old adage that ‘practise makes perfect’ is certainly beginning to pay off as carafe d’eau and le menu en francais, are beginning to more often than not, make their way to my table.
I recently met a fellow Australian who swears by speech therapy as a means of ‘100% becoming French- lets face it, who wants to be anything else,’ before adding that it is guaranteed to help to overcome linguistic hurdles, and in particular, to change the way that the mouth delivers often unpronounceable French words by an English trained ear. She should know, she’s lived in Paris for almost ten years. As we chatted, I began to pick up an accent that felt homemade and she seemed void of any knowledge of anything – she told me she’s not interested in knowing things, she just wants to look good. I find this type of reinvention hard to grapple with, and I couldn’t help giggling inside when Monsieur who served her drink didn’t just wince, but look like he’d been stabbed, when she shouted over the music at him in French delivered in ‘that’ acccent. Yes, I sound silly when I speak French and yes, this makes me feel really Australian with ‘hard to deny’ viking heritage, but I also think French people sound funny when they speak English, and there (in my opinion) lies the beauty of learning and speaking a language.
My trips to the post office, to Monoprix, to the university, the multiple cafes, the laundromat and, (heaven forbid I’m stressing already) the bank in weeks to come, all help enormously as I try to better understand and speak this language, all while maintaining a true sense of who I am. This is my purpose for being here- not to reinvent myself or to deny where I’m from, but to have a better understanding of who I have become. I know in my heart, regardless of where I am in the world, that it is everyday people going about their everyday ‘things,’ who will aid in this.
Fingers crossed, the guy in the post office feels the same way.
Pictured: after my morning slog at the post office, I took great joy from putting my basket down before taking a seat by this beautiful blue door.