Last week a friend was teasing me. "You've lived in Paris for three months and haven't learned French?" Oui. I've always heard that the best way to learn a language is to be immersed in it. But he was right. Three months in Paris and my French is still, as they say, merde.
I took four years of French in high school and the main thing I remember is that we watched Home Alone in French and I made Pillsbury crescent rolls with Hershey's chocolate baked into them, passing it off as pain au chocolat. I have a small vocabulary of words and have picked up a handful more since I arrived. But I struggle to string together sentences and my conversation skills are restricted to telling how many are in my party for dinner, ordering, and asking for the check. L'addition, s'il vous plait.
The fact is Parisians speak English to me. It has long been an assumed social standard that the French aren't eager to speak English. But truthfully, I have found it to be the opposite. I'm not certain if this is a kind gesture, taking pity on me and helping me out. Or an opportunity to stop me from further slaughtering their beautiful language with my incorrect pronunciations. Either way, nearly everywhere I go they understand me and I understand them.
My biggest issue was the first time I got into a cab late at night, when the metros weren't running. The driver couldn't understand what I was saying as my address. I kept repeating it, wishing I was more adept at making French R. It's not so much of a purring R like in English, it's more of suck up all of the air in your mouth then push it out with a RAR. We went on for quite a while, then finally he pulled out a pen and paper. I live on Rue Reaumer. Three months and I still don't know how to correctly pronounce it. Unsurprisingly, I now make sure I head for home while the trains are always in service.
I say bonjour every time I enter a store, cafe, run into someone in my apartment building. Everyone is very polite. I went shoe shopping once in Printemps Haussman, which is a fancy schmancy department store. The shoe department is made up of separate sections for each brand of shoes, with two or three salespeople for each brand. You step two feet into a new section and you're greeted by each person. "Bonjour." "Bonjour, madame." "Bonjour." I say a shy bonjour back to each of them. I circled that shoe department about four times, on a rabid hunt for shoes for an upcoming wedding. "Bonjour." "Bonjour, madame." Two hundred hello's exchanged. Zee French, they are friendly.
I say bonjour at the beginning and always a "merci, au revoir" at the end. It's the standard. So polite. I swear that I have had multiple experiences at Starbucks in the US where the people working there have not spoken a single word to me. I order, I pay, I say thank you, they say nothing, not even telling me what my total is - just leaving it up to me to look at the digital numbers on the register. Here in Paris my favorite coffee shops (five of them in fact) are run by Australians. They speak English + French and say a lot of "cheers!" They are incredibly friendly and we exchange a string of merci's, thanking each other profusely when I leave.
I find myself being very jealous of those who learned to be fluent in multiple languages at a young age. That's how it should be done. My native French friends, polite as they are, offer me many apologies for their poor English and accents. I frown, because they are speaking perfect English to me and have nothing to apologize or be embarrassed about. Je boude. My friend taught this phrase, which translates to "I sulk." I wonder why he felt it was appropriate? "Je boude maintenant," I insert into many conversations - most of which are concerning my impending departure date.
Alors, back to the friend who had been teasing me.
"Je suis contentment ici," he says.
I say, "I am... ...here?"
"I am happy here."
"Je suis contentment ici," I repeat.
Ah, I mais oui. I am.