Friday, May 15, 2009

Arriving in Paris -- Linguistically challenged.

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

When I first arrived in France, I landed in Paris. This was the city I knew best in France, and the place where my French had gotten up to speed when I sojourned in a few families for six weeks during my 16th summer. This time I'd come to Paris to go to graduate school in Arts Management. I wanted a Master's Degree, but preferred the exoticism of getting it in a foreign country to contemplating an equivalent school in NYC or Boston. The travel bug had definitely not been worn out by my year in Japan. Au contraire!

When I arrive in a country where I have yet to master the language there is a certain rhythm to how things progress. The first time, when I was 16 (after four years of study), it took me two weeks of concentrated listening till the normal speed of language clicked, and I was able to follow it. At first, I had the sensation of hearing words I knew sprinkled like little islands of awareness in a sea of slurred gobbledygook. The next stepping stone was a delayed reaction. I would automatically say, "what?" and then two seconds later, I'd comprehend what I'd heard. Rather akin to a phone conversation with a built in time delay. This made for very dis-jointed conversations. I'd be listening intently, say what? then the person would start explaining and then I'd interrupt to say, no, no, I've understood. Next?

The two week point was critical. I awoke up one morning and click, what had felt like a train steam-rolling through my skull on a daily basis suddenly sounded normal. Now, As I write this, I also realize that I am well-known amongst friends and family for speaking quickly. I'm reassured that I don't garble my words nor mumble (a dear friend from high school was the most sincere mumbler I've ever known.. and yes, I can still understand her, and she me). But I do clip along at an impressive pace... in each of my three languages. I do try to slow down for friends who're not native speakers of my languages. Truly!

I am also known for being talkative, bavarde, garrulous, loquacious... as you choose. This is frequently out of my control (particularly after a very strong espresso). However, when I come to a new country. I close my mouth and I open my ears. Ahhh. I don't exactly blend into the background, but I do position myself to listen, over-hear, follow, participate discreetly in gatherings and conversations whirling about me. I did this with ease in Japan (and slept with phrases flowing like waves through my dreams), and I returned to this state in Paris. This period generally lasts about three months. At which point, I become more confident, more able, and words start to tumble from my mouth.

I arrived in Paris in early January, and had a couple of weeks to find an apartment and get settled before school started. I was still in Japanese mode -- quiet, patient, amenable, assuming that people in charge would actually wish to help you resolve problems, etc., I'd also adopted a language tic from Japan -- to begin a sentence but not to finish it. It is rude to complain or specifically attack someone and risky to say too much in general in Japan. As such, if you had an issue with someone and you wanted to convey that to a friend/colleague, you'd simply say, "Mmmm, that woman. . . mmm neeeh, so desune...." and they'd get the picture. No need to go into detail.

This is not the case in France. Complaining is an art, and arguing a necessary skill. I've since adapted, and can hold my own in a political discussion at the dinner table, but right off the boat, I was a neophyte to say the least, in a land where the mastery of the spoken word and well-organized thoughts to pummel your opponent into submission is frighteningly common. A run-in with the France Telecom during my first month in Paris would have lain me low had my co-renter not been with me. Was I up to living in this country?

The apartment I ended up moving into was already partially inhabited by a young German woman who was depressive and out of work, but familiar with the French/Parisian system. Her telephone was limited to only local calls, and I wished to be able to call my parents, friends, etc., in the US. So, we set out to change this. However, the telephone bill was still in the name of a prior renter who'd departed more than a year before. At the France Telecom offices we presented our dilemma: change the name of the line to mine, and permit international calls.

--No. Not possible.

--Oh? But...

--We need the signature of the person in whose name the line was put.

--She's gone.

--Then we will assign you a new number (not an idea my German co-renter was keen on).

And we went round and round. I sat there mutely while my co-renter became more and more aggressive and nearly attacked the France Telecom agent across the desk. They were battling fiercely with words flying through the air. Who would back down first? This was a test of wills, to hell with what was permitted, standard procedure etc., rules were made to be bent in any case. But whose authority would win out in the end?

Ten minutes later, we walked out with a new contract and all in order.

Whew! Stunned, even a bit sick to my stomach from the nastiness of the moment, I wondered when (or if ever) my French (and my person!) would be up to negotiating the French bureaucracy. I was caught in a moment of serious cultural dislocation. Perhaps if I'd come to Paris directly from New York, but spending years in friendly Seattle, and ever so polite Japan had shifted whatever New Yorker aggressiveness I might have had to weather the Parisian front. Onward and?


Mas De La Lionne said...


Nice to find you..suddenly and finally. I, too am a relocated American - also from Seattle as it turns out. But I relocated just last summer - having purchased a small wine domaine just outside Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Would love to have the chance to meet you at some point and compare notes. And the wine is on me - my first vintage - 2008 rose and rouge are now released - and not half bad. Anyway - nice to 'meet' you. Let me know the next time you are up this way. Regards

Doug Graves
Mas de la Lionne

Madeleine Vedel said...

with pleasure!