Learning French: A Humbled Expat 0

By Kathleen Peddicord

Summary: Learning French in the classroom versus speaking French on the streets of Paris can be a humbling experience. Kathleen Peddicord shares her story.

I studied French for two years in high school and four in college, and I've been to France maybe a couple of dozen times in the intervening years. I never deluded myself into thinking that I spoke French...but I did have the (now I realize) misguided idea that I could get by.

We've been in Paris a month. I feel dumber every day.

In the mail yesterday, we received four letters from Gaz de France. It took me 55 minutes (I timed it) and two dictionaries to decipher three of them. They were straightforward communications (do we want a monthly service policy...would we like to arrange direct debit to pay the bill each month...would we please fill out a customer satisfaction survey...and, well, I never did figure out what the fourth letter was getting at), but they took on intimidating qualities as I waded through not only the French vocabulary, but also the flowery French approach to letter writing, even when the subject of the letter is your gas service. The French don't seem to embrace that writer's axiom that cautions against using three words when two will do.

This morning I stopped to buy sunflowers. They were sitting in a bucket just inside the front door of a grocery shop I passed with a sign indicating you could buy five flowers for eight euro. I looked around. No one standing by the flowers, so I began choosing the five I wanted. The woman inside, behind the cash register, jumped up. "Madame, madame!" she cried. I dropped the flowers. She spoke in rapid French to a guy in a suit walking briskly toward the front door. The manager. He indicated to her he'd take care of it. I apologized and said in my best broken French, "Je voudrais cinq, s'il vous-plait."

The gentleman picked up the three flowers I'd dropped and selected two others. Then he seemed to indicate that I should pay him. I reached into my wallet, pulled out a 20 euro note, and offered it to him. "No, no, no," he responded...and continued in more agitated French. I turned and offered the 20 euro note to the woman behind the cash register. No, she wasn't biting either. Was I to pay somewhere else? Did they have no change? I could no longer remember why I wanted the flowers in the first place.

We must get serious about learning this language. We've identified two options.

At l'Alliance Francaise we could take classes weekday evenings and Saturday mornings. The trouble is, with our schedules, the best we could manage would be one or two two-hour sessions each week and some Saturday mornings. Doesn't seem like the most efficient strategy.

Better, I'm thinking, to hole away for a week in a monastery in Holland. A friend here, Jocelyn, mentioned this option yesterday. He knows of a Dutch monastery that offers weeklong immersion programs. They guarantee you'll leave after one week speaking fluently, even if you speak not a word when you arrive. That got my attention.

Kathleen Peddicord
Publisher, International Living

About the Author

AS International Living France International Living's France: Owner's Manual

International Living's new France: The Owner's Manual is more than 140 pages of maps, property listings, details on cost of living, health care, banking, residency requirements, and business opportunities...plus contacts for help buying, renting, renovating, starting a business, and traveling in this glorious country. Hot off the presses, it is a complete and current guide to help you take advantage of a special window of opportunity. If la vie francaise appeals to you...the new France: The Owner's Manual can help. Click here for more details or to order.

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First Published: Dec 11, 2004

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