New Friends and New Cheeses

I have discovered that time works differently in France. What I mean to say is that over a week has gone by and it feels like it was just yesterday that I arrived in Tours, yet it also feels as though I’ve lived in France for months. I’ve learned so much in such a short period of time and have met so many different people, not to mention the different types of cheese I’ve tried!

My class is outrageously more advanced than I expected. As I fumble with words and continuously fret over correctly conjugating irregular verbs, my peers engage in insightful discussions about current events. Before this experience I had never even met a Swiss man or a Norwegian woman, but now I am (fiercely attempting) to discuss the independence of Catalonia with a Spanish diplomat and Brexit with a British philosophy professor. Debating with individuals who are experiencing these events first hand offers incredible insight. Not to mention that these discussions are all in French. IN FRENCH!! Although I find myself rather frustrated many times, seeing as I fervently want to participate, yet I am not always able to fully articulate my complex thoughts.

My participation this week has mainly consisted of eager head nodding and one on one discussions (which offers a much more relaxed setting than an entire class of incredible people hearing me fumble). Whenever I do raise my hand in class (which is still quite frequent despite the occasional embarrassing not-being-able-to-express-myself), I’ll start off with one or two beautifully phrased sentences which I had spent the past 5 minutes preparing and then end up blabbering off into an abyss of too many ideas and not enough time to figure out what verb in French I need to use to express them clearly.

Despite the sometimes-maddening language limitations, I have learned so much from the discussions, both linguistically and academically. Not only that, but I am amazed at how wide the world is. I have met so many interesting people with different ambitions and worldviews. I met a Japanese art teacher who was going to study law at the Sorbonne this fall, I met a Russian housewife with a brilliant French accent, I met a Taiwanese lawyer passionate about environmental issues and so many more. I would never think I had anything in common with a Taiwanese chef, yet I have been able to bond and learn we all share some passions; the one thing all my classmates and I have in common is our love of the French language.

Whenever I feel a bit overwhelmed by the incredible (and fast-paced) classes, my host mom offers me great encouragement. This Thursday she had a guest over and kept telling him how proud she was of my progress so far. Over a piece of bread and some goat cheese, I humbly thanked her and tried to follow the conversation she was having with her guest. I am proud to announce that understand nearly all of it!

                                        Me and my host mom enjoying some Brie, Emmental,                                 Goat Cheese and Mozzarella (yes, I am very happy here)

Je suis prêt. (I am ready.)

Airplanes smell funny. It was always the first thing my mom would remark as we stepped onto a plane, and when I began flying alone, it was the typical response to the question: “How was your flight?” I would unfailingly tell her all about how the airplane was cold and smelled pretty peculiar.

This time was different, though. I was going to France. I was going to France! It would be my first time in Europe, my first time in a country where a year ago I wouldn’t even be able to order myself a coffee in the native tongue. This time, I didn’t even notice the relentless blow of the air-conditioning or the stench of flying in a heavily crowded tin can.

I remember mumbling a quick “Bonjour” to the women who sat down next to me. They smiled politely and began an un-be-live-ab-ly fast-paced conversation with each other. Suddenly, words failed me. My involuntary silence wasn’t caused by anything as simple as worrying about how to conjugate a certain verb or fretting over using the formal greeting vous instead of the more familiar tu, but a full out, jaw-clenching fear of making a mistake.

French classes at Notre Dame had always been fun and, as a beginner, I learned to not be afraid of committing blunders. There were many instances where I would yell out a wrong answer or take 2 minutes to form a phrase that should have taken me 20 seconds, yet now my mouth could not find the courage to move. It dawned on me that I was not speaking with my encouraging professor or with empathetic classmates, I was speaking to French natives who read books in French to their kids every night, books I had only began reading a couple of months prior.

It’s funny, before my flight I had rehearsed a couple of phrases in French, repeating them over and over again in my mind as a way to reassure myself: I can do this. I am ready to spend two months outside of my comfort zone in a place I have only dreamed of.

Those introductory phrases that let (hopefully patient) strangers know that I was a student at an American University trying to improve her French seemed outlandish now. I spent the entire flight trying to embolden the confident smile I used to wear so naturally. Je suis prêt. Je suis prêt. (I am ready.) I kept echoing this phrase in a feeble attempt to convince myself that I hadn’t actually bitten off more than I could chew.

Never in my life had I felt my knees so much as tremble on an airplane. I’d foolishly giggle as my mother prayed the rosary over and over again on flights. Now, I felt a different kind of fear creeping in; the fear of failure.

Pretending to sleep was my only solace on this seemingly never-ending flight. With lips and eyes closed shut I discretely listened in on the women’s conversation. Don’t worry, I didn’t even have a chance to invade their privacy because I barely understood them. Words would fall out of their mouths so nonchalantly it seemed an affront to my deliberately chosen words. Their quick pace seemed to laugh at my sluggish one. All I truly remember from their conversation is the crushing feeling of being overwhelmed. Je suis prêt. Je suis prêt. I kept telling myself.

I was out of my league and shocked to discover it.

Having successfully completed two semesters of intensive French classes at ND, I felt confident I would at the very least be able to carry out simple conversations and interact relatively well with the locals. I knew I wasn’t 100% fluent but the stark contrast between my draining conversations with friends in French to this casual, easy-flowing chat scared me. My borderline arrogant outlook on my French fluency plummeted and a once confident, albeit slow, speaker was now scared to ask the flight attendant for a bottle of water– a vocabulary term I’m pretty sure we covered in the first week of my Beginning French class.

After shakily walking out of the plane I faced an amicable grin and a cheerful “Bonjour. Ça va?” My already shaken heart began thumping even harder; this was the absolute worst possible scenario: a curious Frenchman! His approachability was rendered to belligerence as I was certain I would make a fool out of myself. Although my mind tried to reassure me this was a ridiculous exaggeration (which yes, yes it was), my heart didn’t seem to understand and was ready to jump out of my mouth so as to prohibit me from voicing the broken French I had been so proud of a mere week before. I hastily inquired where the bus station was- it was one of the rehearsed phrases that had been bouncing around my brain for the full 11 hours of my flight. It would be the best I could do, I decided. The man chuckled to himself and told me the directions to where I needed to go. He told me the directions in English. IN ENGLISH! After the well-meaning interaction, I became decidedly quiet.

The entire bus and subsequent train ride to Tours were spent in a state of fearful timidity. I am pretty sure I have never spoken less in a period of 24 hours.
The only photo I managed to take on my way to Tours.

Having arrived at the train station I saw my host-mom-to-be waiting for me with a piece of cardboard with my name written on it. I’m not sure if it was her warm smile or simply the familiarity of my own name written in Sharpie that reassured me, but I suddenly felt safer.

After a brief conversation, one where my host mom consciously enunciated every single word and didn’t seem to notice the time that passed between one phrase I spoke and the next, the words I had been repeating to myself finally seemed true: Je suis prêt. (I am ready.)