Pardon my French

I got chewed out by a bus driver yesterday. For what, I couldn’t tell you, but I think I’ve got a pretty good idea. First, I had to use a 10-euro bill to buy my 1-euro ticket and she clearly didn’t want to have to go to the trouble to make change. I gestured that the bill was all I had, she “hmphed” and counted out my coins. Not a good start.

Although we’re technically supposed to collapse the baby stroller anytime we board a bus, we never have yet and it’s not been a problem. In fact, I’ve seen quite a few other women push strollers on and off the buses without a second glance. At the time, I was by myself with the toddler and was not about to try to wrestle him and the stroller at the same time.

The bus was crowded, but the driver seemed to want me to move to the back, which was impossible. Again, another hmph and a roll of the eyes as I tried to position the stroller along the side as inconspicuously as I could. There was still plenty of room for people to get by us, mind you.

We only had a short distance to ride, thankfully. When it came time to make our exit, I started backing the stroller up to lower it off the same front entrance where we’d boarded. This, apparently, was another no-no. I was supposed to somehow muscle the stroller through the crowd of passengers all the way to the back exit to disembark there instead of getting off through the front entrance, a mere 10 feet or so from where we were standing. The driver finally just shook her head and shooed us out, mumbling God knows what kind of insults not quite under her breath. Well, excusez the hell out of moi!

I hate looking like a stereotypical stupid American tourist. I attempt to speak the language wherever we travel, I don’t expect special treatment, and I try to be as respectful of foreign cultures as possible. The bus ride wasn’t a big deal in the big picture, I suppose, but the interaction with the driver bothered me for the rest of the day.

The more time I spend in France, the easier the language gets to navigate. They say immersion is the best way of learning, and it’s true. I can sometimes sense a difference in my comprehension level literally from day to day. This does NOT mean I’ve broken the language barrier with leaps and bounds. Far from.

I find I’m able to understand more French than I’m able to actually speak. This is frustrating. Someone might make a comment to me in a store or on the street and I’ll know what they’re saying, but the correct words don’t occur to me quickly enough to respond. Or I stammer out a response, only to realize I’ve used the wrong word the second it comes flying out of my mouth. Then I feel like a doofus. OR, I end up responding with something in Italian or German instead of French (a distinct possibility when we find ourselves visiting all three countries in the same number of weeks and the phrases for “please,” “thank you,” and “where’s the toilet?” all run together in my head).

I studied French in high school for three years, but my language skills and vocabulary have obviously become rusty with more than 20 years of non-use. It’s funny the words and phrases that do come back to me at the weirdest moments, though. The sun comes out and suddenly “soleil” pops into my head unbidden. I guess it’s all still buried in there somewhere waiting to be unearthed at the right moment.

The rare occasions when I’m able to carry off a short conversation flawlessly are thrilling, I must admit, but they’re definitely the exception and not the rule. Say, I’ll check out at the grocery store without a hiccup, or actually reply to someone’s question appropriately and without a lapse. Those moments are fantastic, but then again, it’s only small talk. It will be a long, long time before I’m able to carry on an in-depth French exchange with any sort of spontaneity. Still, it’s a start.

Yesterday, the toddler and I were wandering our way through one of the ubiquitous French street markets when I stopped to trail my finger along a beautiful knit scarf. The young guy behind the table came around to coo at the toddler and noticed his differently colored eyes (one brown, one blue. I know, it’s pretty cool.). Amazed, the guy gestured to his buddy to come over and have a look. I managed to contribute some sort of stammering comment, then explained we were American. The two of them chattered back and forth excitedly before turning to me, one obviously struggling to say something and trying to find the right words. Boy, do I know that feeling. I waited patiently to hear what would come out of his mouth, and finally he said “Like David Bowie?”

I laughed, and without a second thought, replied “Oui! Comme ça!”

Which, as it turned out, was the perfect thing to say.

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