Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Travel Is Infantilizing

As I mentioned, I'm in Paris. I speak some French - not a lot, not a little, somewhere in between.

Having been here two weeks, I'm going through that phase now where the French words for certain things come into your mind whether you want them to or not. It's when you start to feel, "With enough time, I could really learn this language."

For me that phase is always when it's just about time to go home, because I don't come for all that long. And honestly, when I'm home I find it almost impossible to do the "oh, just practice a little every day" thing. So I'm sure I'll be back to square one next time I come.

I find it very exhausting, the language thing, and part of the reason is that I feel like more than most people I live inside the language of American English. I love its informality, and playfulness; I love that it's always changing and that even dorky professor types like me can say "Dude," and that there's always some snappy word like "laptop" just when you need one.

The French call it an ordinateur portable.

The French do have this crazy thing Verlan which I've always been curious about. It's like you invert the syllables; it's one of those slangs that started in les banlieues to keep the cops in the dark about what you were saying. It sounds awesome but it also sounds like you'd make an ass of yourself if you used in any but the most appropriate context.

Anyway, the other thing that's wearing me out about French is that when you're just learning a language, you're like a child during every interaction.

I go to order a sandwich, in French. The woman at the counter asks me, in French, if I'd like a drink, and I ask her, in French, for "un Coca Light." She smiles and it all goes fine. I am momentarily pleased as punch. Look! I got a gold star!! Yay!

I go to order a croissant, in French. The guy behind the counter asks me, in French, if that's for here or to go, and I am utterly befuddled. Of course "to go" in French is "emporter" which is not easy if the speaker is mumbling. He says, in English, "For here or to go?" I tell him, "Oh, for here." He gives me my croissant. I am momentarily cast down. Boo.

I feel like a four-year-old.

The worst thing for me is that I over-read the reactions on people's faces to see if I'm doing "a good job" communicating. Did I ask politely? Is the lady smiling?

But you know, in the course of things, often people are crabby for reasons that have nothing to do with you, and at home I would never dream of inferring something about myself from whether the barista at Starbucks smiles or frowns at me. She's got her own life.

Of course, at home I know whether I've been polite without gauging these reactions.

It doesn't help that being polite in France is so much a matter of using the right words. "Bonjour Madame," and you're almost all the way there; a friendly American smile and everyone thinks you're a lunatic. You can see them thinking, "What are you smiling like that at me for? Do we know each other? Who are you?"

Once I internalized the rules of not smiling at strangers right away and always saying "Bonjour" I was like halfway home.

But, dude! It's all really tiring.

1 comment:

Daniel said...

Oh my god! I so agree. Traveling somewhere where English isn't spoken is such hard work. I might even say that it's just not fun. It's almost always more fun to reflect on it a few weeks afterwards, looking at pictures. Or, there are moments of fun - like jogging in the Luxembourg Gardens with an iPod. Things that require no interaction.

Also (and I'm going to sound like an asshole here), can we please have some air conditioning, people?