Sitting next to someone with whom you can’t communicate is like walking past a closed boulangerie. You know it contains wonderful things, but they aren’t available to you. This may not be the strongest simile but it appropriately reflects how I feel about pastry as well as the language barrier. My host mother, Marina, is a completely lovely woman. She is sweet and thoughtful and patient with my lack of proficiency in French. My host sister, Claire, is also very sweet. I know that both are endlessly interesting people. Marina is originally from Colombia and I’ve been able to grasp that she loves to travel not only from her saying so but also from the diverse knick knacks and photos around her house.  I feel confident enough to point to a wall hanging and say: “C’est très interessante et belle. D’où est-il?” but I’m afraid I wouldn’t understand the answer. Claire dances and sings very well, but because I can’t say more than “Ah, tu aimes la danse moderne! Moi aussi,” our talks haven’t gotten very far. Likewise, there are so many things about myself that I want to tell them that I know I couldn’t spit out in French. Marina took me to an art show the day I arrived after I mentioned haltingly, “J’etudie les beaux-arts et l’histoire.” Some of the paintings were lovely, and I said that, but couldn’t explain what I liked about them.

But, having completed a few of my four-hour French classes (I have then Monday through Thursday) I feel a good deal more confident! Of course, the class environment is extremely different than reality. The person with whom you’re speaking knows what level you’re operating at; they want only to help you improve; and they have tons of experience teaching and speak clearly. In reality, your conversation partner may be in a hurry and speaking very quickly, may not like non-French speakers or may simply be a mumbler; there may be noisy garbage trucks in the background, the person may be upwind of you, you may have forgotten to clean the wax out of your ear that morning, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. The list could go on and on. I think that’s what dawned on me today: there’s always an excuse for not being able to do something. Ultimately, you either shake off whatever negative circumstances may surround you and just jump in, or you keep moping that something’s wrong and never improve. And as for what native French-speakers may think of my imperfect French, I’m reminded of a small book about living according to Stoic philosophy that my father gave me last year (thanks Papa!). It says that when it comes to criticism or insults directed at you, you must first decide whether the source of the critique is a source you trust and respect. If not, then don’t worry; their views hold no weight with you anyway. If they are someone you value, consider their point without self-pity or resentment. If they are correct, make the appropriate adjustments in yourself. If they are incorrect, again, move on. So, today I’ve resolved to attempt to speak French whenever possible while allowing myself to say “pardon, parlez-vous l’anglais?” if necessary. Generally, the native French speakers I’ve met have been very kind and understanding; they encouragingly say that I’ll improve.

In terms of body language, I am happy to say that in public, my years living in New York have taught me what our advisors are telling us applies in Aix: don’t make eye contact with strangers on the street, don’t draw too much attention to yourself (especially after dark), and keep your personal items close to your body. I’ve been trying to remain aware of all of these things while still stopping to enjoy the beauty of Aix, and even allow myself to get lost in its winding streets a few times. After all, it could lead to discovering new boulangeries!
 


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