It seems I’m in French withdrawal.
My first weekend back in New York, I went to lunch with my parents and we had a francophone waiter. I knew this not because he spoke anything less than the most perfect English with us, but because I overheard him conversing with his colleague in French by the cash register. Despite telling myself sternly, “Do not be that person, Ruth” some ineffable force compelled me to switch into French and ask him where he was from. Congo, apparently, and his colleague was from Senegal.
Since then, there’s been the father and his two kids on the subway, the vacationing couple at the restaurant in Hanoi, the retirees on the ferry in Hong Kong, the woman looking for a street downtown, the man watching his kids play in Central Park… Every time I hear anyone speak French – or even English with a French accent – I wrack my brain for a way to break into their conversation, en français, without seeming too desperate. Many times I can’t find one, and I am able to keep my mouth shut. But sometimes, my tongue disobeys my brain and follows my heart into the most awkward exchanges. Without fail, I feel silly about it, yet I keep doing it anyway.
I used to be mortified whenever my mother, a Brooklynite who moved to Israel in her 20’s and returned to the States in her 30’s, would butt in on strangers’ conversations after she overheard them speaking Hebrew. We’d be in the middle of the English-speaking world – a mall in New Jersey or a cafe in New York – and this native English speaker would find any excuse to say something to the Israelis in Hebrew. It always seemed that my introverted mother did this not because she truly wanted to engage with other human beings but because she wanted validation of her identity in the kin group. No matter what she said to them, all I ever heard was a pathetic, “Wink wink, I’m one of you!”
Now that I have caught myself pulling the same stunt on multiple occasions, I think of it a little differently.
I suppose there is a small part of me that has something to prove: that I can still speak the language, or that I belong with the foreigners in my midst. But most of it has nothing to do with pride (which is good because there is nothing ego-boosting about sounding like a complete dope). Instead, the overpowering desire to speak French comes from…wanting to speak French. I have so few opportunities these days that when I see one, I can’t pass it up.
I don’t really miss France, but I really, really miss French. It’s a beautiful language, and I love it. I guess my mother feels the same way about Hebrew.
So to that I say,
*Kol hakavod, i.e., “All the honor,” i.e., You go, girl!
I’ve met my fair share of French doctors. This is unfortunate not because they are particularly awful but because I’ve had to see them in the first place. For someone who only lived in France for nine months, I spent an inordinate amount of time in bad health and navigating the healthcare system.
You start to pick up on cultural clues when you interact with the same type of person or bureaucracy over and over again in a relatively short space of time.
Here are a few experiences I found illuminating:
The first time I visited a French doctor, I made an appointment online and showed up a few hours later. The office was on the ground floor of an apartment building. A woman came to the door and told me to sit in a living room-like waiting area. When that same woman came back and led me into another room ten minutes later, I assumed she’d then leave and get the doctor. But she was the doctor. Her exam area was a converted sitting room. Between the fireplace, the crown molding, and the oil paintings in gilded frames, the exam table seemed a little out of place.
The doctor told me to take off everything below the waist, and then she stood there. I was afraid I had misunderstood her French and would scandalize her if I proceeded to strip in front of her. So I confirmed – everything? Yes, everything. She continued to stand there. I pulled first my pants and then my underwear off, not knowing exactly where to hold my gaze. Then I awkwardly scrambled onto the exam table. She did a quick exam, made a diagnosis, and sat down at her desk to do the billing while I put my clothes back on.
As this was happening, a call came in. Someone wanted to have a discussion about lab results but the doctor said she was busy and told her to make an online appointment to come in. Then she hung up and told me apologetically that because I didn’t have any social security coverage, the charge would be 30 Euros. I shook my head in wonder, and as I handed over the cash, I couldn’t help but gush about how the French health care system is humane and wonderful and a million times better than the American one, which the GOP was attempting to dismantle that very week.
Then the phone rang again. It was the same woman as before, insisting on a phone consultation. The woman raised her voice and the doctor lost her patience. The two started shouting at each other while I sat and waited. Suddenly, the doctor hung up on the woman, turned to me, and muttered, “The United States, huh? I would LOVE to be a doctor in the United States. You see the way we get treated here?”
Later I visited a GP who got into a screaming match with a patient because she came in for an emergency appointment but didn’t have an official emergency. He told her she had to wait for a regular visit like everyone else and she refused to comply. He, too, did not have a receptionist and had to handle the dirty work himself. He, too, seemed to be operating out of a dedicated area of his own apartment. And he, too, told me to take my shirt off for the exam and then stood there looking at me expectantly. While I found it a little unnerving, it did made me wonder why it matters if a doctor walks out of the room and gives you privacy while you’re changing, if in the end they see you naked anyway.
Then there was the psychiatrist at a reputable hospital who, after advising me to leave France (I had not asked for his advice), told me that I’d have to be crazy to want to live in a country where x, y, and z were wrong. I pointed out that things weren’t much better in the United States and he conceded, “Well, yes, of course Donald Trump is completely insane.” If he had been joking I would have found it funny, but he was 100% unaware that he was taking liberties with his profession’s terms of art. I thought about all the American psychiatrists who have steadfastly refused to diagnose Trump’s mental health from a distance, and I was suddenly thankful for this one’s lack of tact.
There are lots of other differences between French and American healthcare workers that I noticed, but my friend’s story is the one I like best:
She hadn’t had a teeth cleaning in more than two years and felt gross about it. When she went to the dentist, he looked in her mouth and told her that her teeth were fine, and he flat out refused to treat her even though she expressed a strong desire for a cleaning. I can imagine him explaining in a very dignified way that he could not possibly accept her money for a service that wasn’t necessary. On the contrary, I could not in a million years imagine an American dentist refusing my money – or thinking that two years’ worth of plaque buildup was no big deal. In fact, the last time I went to the dentist he tried to convince me that I urgently needed $600 worth of veneers. (I didn’t.)
I will let you draw your own conclusions about these interactions, if you’d like. I prefer to keep mine to myself, because if I’ve learned anything during my travels it’s that just when you think you have enough evidence to come to an understanding about a foreign culture, your assumptions are upended and you feel like a fool for judging too soon.
[The beautiful garden in the photo above is in the courtyard of the oldest hospital in Paris, founded in the 7th century, though the current building is from the late 1800s. Not your average NYC hospital.]
I cannot tell you how many times over the past nine months I was about to quit Paris. I was only originally supposed to stay for a month, and then one month morphed into two after I was given an amazing Montmartre house-sitting offer I couldn’t refuse. And then two months turned into four when I had no better plans and found a cool place to stay in Belleville. And then four turned into five when the house-sitting opportunity came up again… And so on and so forth, and now here I am on month nine. It feels like an eternity since I arrived.
Back in the day, i.e. around month three, I would joke about the probability that in 30 years I would find myself still living in a country I never really liked and never really chose, through stasis alone. As it turns out, the universe had a different ironic twist in store: I fell in love with the city I hated just as I realized I would soon be forced to leave. Continue reading
Last night I walked ten minutes through the nearly empty streets of Montmartre to experience midnight mass in one of the oldest churches in Paris. Paroisse Saint-Pierre de Montmartre dates from the 12th century and is about 870 years old, which never ceases to amaze me.
I’m not Christian nor a believer in general, but there is something about the loftiness, beauty, age, and cool stone of cathedrals that quiets my mind. And there’s something about midnight mass that I find particularly cozy.
As the organ echoed through the space and the singer’s voice rose to the heavens, I finally felt calm and self-possessed about leaving Paris in a week. The memory of the day I arrived popped into my mind and tears – of wonder, not of sadness – sprung to my eyes. Then an elderly, hard of hearing couple a few rows behind me started muttering about the service.
I moved on to Sacré-Cœur Basilica next door. I noticed camo-clad soldiers with machine guns patrolling the cobblestoned streets, and I had to show the contents of my purse before going inside. There’s the romance of Montmartre and then there’s the reality of life in 2017.
While Saint-Pierre was loosely filled with almost 100% locals, Sacré-Cœur was overflowing with both devoted churchgoers and gawkers like me. It was a lot less hushed and still, but when the choir sang “Silent Night” the voices filled the space with as much peace as in the parish church next door.
I tiptoed out early so that I could have the streets all to myself on the way home. I caught snatches of revelry from open windows here and there. There was a spirited French-accented singalong to “Hit the Road, Jack” that I found particularly adorable.
And then I was back at my apartment that is not really my apartment, in a country that’s not my country, on a holiday that is not my holiday, feeling like a zen ethnographer rather than a lonely stranger. And that was really alright with me.
Merry Christmas / Joyeux Noël to all those celebrating today!
I once read about a man who woke up from a coma speaking fluently in a language he had barely been able to speak before. This phenomena has been documented on multiple occasions, and apart from the brain damage I’ve always been really jealous of those people. Well… as of two weeks ago I may have joined their ranks. Continue reading
The title of this post was going to be “Chez [name redacted]: A perfect neighborhood place.” Then tragedy struck. Continue reading
Since writing my blog post about French new wave music, I must have listened to “Paris” by Taxi Girl a hundred more times. Sometimes I hear it in my head when I’m walking through the streets of Paris and I smile so hard I start to laugh.
I’ve been reflecting upon why I love this song so much, and I think I’ve figured it out. This understanding in turn feels like the missing piece to the puzzle of why I had such a hard time falling for France. Continue reading
I complain a lot about how tough it is to learn French later in life, but there are also benefits. The biggest one is that I don’t fall victim to bad habits I have in English, most notably: cursing and using filler words.
I had a phase where I tried to learn all the French gros mots and integrate them into my speech so that I could sound like a real French speaker. But then I realized it only made me sound like a real asshole (case in point) so I stopped, for the most part. I do find myself using the word “foutu” (fucked) too much – and usually incorrectly, because it rolls off my tongue more easily than the ubiquitous putain (which literally means “prostitute” but is used more like “shit” or “damn it”).
Another French tendency that I am really glad I have avoided thus far is the urge to fill even the most minute pause between words and phrases with a sound of some kind, so that a few sentences becomes more like one record-length German word. I find the worst offender of the fillers to be “euh,” wherein the h is extended until the speaker gathers and pronounces their next thought – even if that next thought takes forever to reveal itself. But there are a bunch of other words – like “bah,” “ben,” and “du coup”- whose meaning is so minimal as to be inconsequential. They are essentially the “um,” “uh,” and “so” of the French language.
Then there are words that do add some emphasis but are still pretty much throwaways, like “quoi,” which gets tacked on to the end of sentences as a sort of grasping “ya know.” I find it such a grating addition to an elegant French sentence, and yet such an unconscious pattern of native speech, that the one time it slipped out of my mouth I simultaneously horrified and impressed myself.
It’s true that I have taken to leaning upon another oft-used filler, “bref,” which means “anyways” or “long story short,” but which could usually be cut from a sentence without losing anything. I can’t help myself when it comes to this one – it’s the perfect word for someone as long-winded as I am. If I tire myself out in the middle of a meandering story, I’ll stop short, say “bref” rather dramatically, and skip straight to the one-sentence conclusion.
In English I take forever to get to the point, but in French my desire to use the least amount of words to convey the most amount of information overwhelms my compulsion to make myself 100% understood. That economy of language is, I suppose, another reason why I haven’t succumbed to euh, bah, or hein yet… They do count as words even if they don’t actually say anything.
P.S. Non-native French-speaking bloggers Damon and Jo made me giggle with their imitation of the French predilection for filler words in the video below. (Also, possibly my favorite advice ever: “If you want to sound French you just gotta add all these noises.”) 😂
One nice thing about learning a second language in adulthood is that you are never distracted by conversations happening around you. If you don’t really focus on comprehending the words being spoken, they remain easily ignored white noise. In both Senegal and France, I have discovered that I am able to zone out completely in public spaces, no matter how many people are speaking French around me.
It’s easy to tune out because it takes a conscious decision to tune in, whereas in English I process language subconsciously.
For example, on the metro in Paris, the buzz of speakers doesn’t annoy me the way it does on the subway in New York, because here it is just that – a buzz, without substance. It’s only when I pick up fragments of English that I’m snapped out of whatever reverie I’m in.
And yet. A few weeks ago I went to dinner and the table next to me started talking about cafards. Specifically, they started talking about the hugest cockroaches they had ever encountered and the gross ways in which they had encountered them. For the first time in my life, I could not help but understand everything they were saying, despite trying my hardest not to concentrate on them. It was like reverse psychology – the more I didn’t want to hear, the more I couldn’t help but eavesdrop.
The irony was, I know French well enough to have picked up all too much of this group’s conversation, but not well enough to have been able to lean over and confidently yet politely state: “While you may be done dining, I have only just begun, and you are telling cockroach horror stories within earshot. I would appreciate if you would change the subject.” I hadn’t learned how to use bien vouloir yet, after all.
So I gave them dirty looks instead. But much like I remain deaf to French conversations in the metro, they took no notice of my American glares.
[Photo: Paul Sullivan]