Je ne vous comprends pas

After nearly two months of travel in Danish-, Czech-, and German-speaking territory, Sarah and I were finally set to arrive in France. I speak French! So the language barrier was about to get a lot smaller…or was it?


The First Taste of France

Anyone who speaks a second language will know that for a long time, it feels clumsy and awkward, and you can never say exactly what you mean to say. With every sentence, you have to negotiate the gaps in your vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation. You have to translate your fully formed English thought into a language that you only partially know, and it’s exhausting.

But if you’re patient and you use that language enough, one day something will click. When I studied abroad in Lyon (in the southeast of France, near the Alps) in the summer of 2009, French finally clicked in my mind. I could just think my thoughts in French and then say them. Much simpler.

During my next few years of college, I continued taking French classes that allowed me to use the language with purpose. My French didn’t get much better during that time, but I was able to maintain it. It was easy to work at it, because I was excited to be able to express myself in another language. It was something I’d always wanted to do, but had never been sure I could accomplish.

Back for More

During my study abroad summer, I met Alix, a girl that lived next door to my host family. She was a few years younger than me, but we hit it off right away and became pen pals when I came back home. She had the brilliant idea to do a little exchange. I would host her to come to the US for a month, and she would host me to come back to France.

Alix came to visit me in 2010, and then in 2012, after lots of work and saving, it was my turn to head back to France, this time without the security blanket of a study abroad program. No teachers to explain things to me. No Americans to hang out with if I was feeling shy. And no English.


“Keh-TEE,” the French-Speaking Me

During that month, French started to settle into my body in a way that it never had before. The French syllables that had felt so clumsy in my mouth began to flow more naturally. People still teased me now and then about my American accent, and I still made plenty of grammar mistakes, but I could understand and be understood without too much effort. I started to think my thoughts in French, even in my alone moments. It went so deep that when I remembered conversations with English speaking friends and family, they played out in French in my mind.

As I started to get more and more comfortable with speaking French, a new me started to emerge. “Keh-TEE,” as the French pronounce my name, was still me but somehow different from me. Her facial expressions and gestures were different, and she was more comfortable with herself somehow. I think that since I was an American in France and didn’t have much hope of fitting in, I just accepted the fact that I was different and didn’t dwell on it. It was very liberating.

Back Again

Once we set off on our most recent voyage in Europe, I knew that we would probably be making a stop in France, hopefully to see Alix. I hadn’t practiced my French much in the two years since I’d been there, but I figured it would be a great chance to brush up and step into my “Keh-TEE” personality for just a little while. Making our travel arrangements was a lot easier, since I was roughly familiar with the geography and transport companies in France. Being able to read French didn’t hurt, either.

We flew from Munich, Germany, to Paris, France, and a feeling of excitement came over me as we got on the plane. The flight attendants were French! The intercom announcements were in French! We weren’t going to be those-jerks-who-don’t-speak-German anymore! I’d be that-American-trying-to-speak-French instead. Still not the most sympathetic character, but an improvement nonetheless.

When we got off the plane in Paris, we got stuck in a little bubble of German passengers on the way to baggage claim. They were chatting all around us as we waited for our packs. I had become strangely attuned to the sounds of German, so I had trouble filtering them out as I was trying to flip my brain over into French.

“Je ne vous comprends pas”

With our bags safely in hand, we trekked through the airport to the train terminal. The German bubble popped and at last we were firmly planted in French-speaking territory. My first challenge was to collect our train tickets. I made a beeline for the ticket machine, but it didn’t work. I looked around for a ticketing office, but didn’t see one. There was an info booth, so I took a deep breath and stepped into line.

As I waited, I went through the familiar ritual of making a mental script of the conversation I was about to have. I thought about what I would say and what the attendant would probably reply, pausing to dredge up some words from deep in my memory bank.

When it was my turn, I approached the window, put on a bright American smile, and said, as clearly as I could muster, “Can you tell me where to collect my train tickets?”

The surly boy behind the glass looked at me like a crazy person and said, “At the ticket machine,” as though it was the most obvious thing in the world. I was prepared for this possibility, and told him that I’d already tried the machine, and it was only for buying tickets. I’d already paid for mine and just needed to collect it from a different machine, or maybe a ticketing office. He gave me that what-the-hell-are-you-talking-about look again and said indignantly, “Je ne vous comprends pas.”—I don’t understand you. He shrugged his shoulders as though he hoped I would just go away.

My face fell, and an uncharacteristic wave of anger welled up in me. This was definitely off script. I wanted to tell him that he was being rude, that that was a rude thing to say to someone who was clearly trying very hard to communicate. But I was muted and couldn’t find the words to express myself. I dropped the nice American girl act and brandished my iPod in front of him, showing him my train ticket reservation on the screen. “I don’t know how else to explain it to you,” I said in half-broken French. “The ticket machines are only for buying tickets. I bought my ticket online. It’s already paid for. My train is leaving in 20 minutes, and I just need to find where to collect my ticket.”

“But you have your ticket right there, on your mobile,” he said, clearly exasperated with me.

“No, this is not my ticket. This is my reservation number. It’s not a ticket. I have to use this number to collect my ticket, which is what I’m trying to ask you about.” I had to restrain myself from stomping my foot. Just when I was about to give up, understanding dawned on his face, and he said, “Oh. It’s just right through those doors.”

I rolled my eyes at him and left in a huff, not even bothering to say thank you. In my mind, I knew that the info boy was being ridiculous, that that exchange was not necessarily due to my lack of French, but to his lack of knowledge about the train station. But in my heart, I felt Keh-TEE withering away, and knew that she didn’t really exist at the moment. I was shaken by that first French conversation, and off on a bit of a bad note.

I did get to speak a bit of French during our time in France, but it was much different now that I was just a tourist passing through. Most people would switch to English as soon as they heard my accent. Alix explained to me that they were trying to be polite, that they thought I was making a great effort to speak French. It was true, I was making a great effort. That was the part that stung a bit, like seeing an old friend that used to be so close to you, that you aren’t sure how to talk to anymore.

Not All Bad

Even though I had a rough time with the French language, it was still fun to be in France again. Alix lives in Nantes, in the northeast corner of France near the Atlantic coast, and it was cool to see a different region than I had visited before. I was also glad to be able to show Sarah a bit of the country that had such an influence in my growing-up process. But the next time I go to France, I’ll be more prepared. Hopefully Keh-TEE will make an appearance then.

I’ll let the photos do the talking about what we did during our time in Nantes and Paris!`

Halfway Home

On the day that marked the halfway point of our trip, we sat down in a Dublin pub and talked about our experiences so far.

Katie: We’ve been on the road for almost two and a half months, and as of today we’re halfway through. Hard to believe. How’s it going so far?

Sarah: You know, it’s going really good. It’s been amazing. We’ve had some major ups and some major downs. We’ve seen a lot, done a lot—it’s crazy that we’re only halfway, because we’ve been zooming around so much that it seems like we should be more than halfway. But I’m feeling good. I’m feeling really good to be in Ireland, and up next, the UK. It’s very a big relief since we got here.

K: Definitely.

S: The language barrier was really intense, and it’s just, always there, no matter what. You can’t—like just the most basic little things become a struggle when you don’t speak the same language.

K: Yeah, just things like doing laundry, or ordering food at a restaurant.

S: Or just buying something  from any kind of store is always like ugh, a thing.

K: It turns into a thing, that’s the thing.

S: Everything you do.

K: Yeah. You can’t really take anything for granted.

S: Nope. Reading street signs, trying to navigate during rush hour with all of your luggage…Public transportation is amazing, but yet, there’s all these different options, like are you gonna be in Zone 1, 2, or 3? OK, well there’s no map telling me where the zones are, so I don’t know [which metro ticket to buy].

K: Like in Berlin?

S: Just everywhere. You know, it’s…

K: It’s stressful. And just right when you get to know one system, it’s time to pick up and move somewhere else.

S: Yeah, the second you get the hang of one place, it’s time to leave, so you’re right back in the, not knowing where you’re going…It’s really exhausting in a way. But we’ve seen and done some really, really cool things.

K: So what are some of your highlights so far?

S: So far…Our Savior’s Church in Copenhagen, climbing to the very top of that was epic.

K: With Ida? That was fun!

S: Fun and, I’m not scared of heights, but I was shaking.

K: I was terrified!

S: It was intense. Um, I loved Berlin. Berlin was a really cool city, had a really cool vibe to it.

K: Yeah, I loved Berlin. I think it has a really interesting history and a really interesting outlook on the present and the future.

S: Yes. Staying with Sue and Tom [in Prague] was also very fun because, at that point, that was the very first people, like American people…

K: Yeah, an American family.

S: That we had been able to talk to since we left…so that was really nice to stay with them.

K: And they were really helpful and told us a lot of good tips and advice about Prague and the Czech Republic.

S: Yeah, and they made us feel right at home, and it was so nice to have our own space, and all of that. And I think Dublin, you know. It’s just a great city, it feels really small and yet, there’s lots going on, and people here are so nice.

K: I’ll never forget when we got off the plane.

S: Yeah, me either.

K: The flight attendants were just smiling, and saying “Welcome!” And I was like, this feels good.

S: Yeah, after being in central Europe where everyone’s very very reserved. Not cold, but not friendly.

K: Not very warm. Not like what we’re used to in Iowa. I think if you get know them, they probably are, but as strangers…

S: Yeah, definitely.

K: Do you have any regrets or things that you wish you had known before we came?

S: Um…I guess with any big trip, I wish I had known what I was actually going to use, and just packing-wise I would do it differently. By the time you get halfway through you’re a pro and you know exactly what bag would have been perfect, but you’re kind of using the one you have, but I think that goes with any trip. I wish I would’ve picked up some more German before we came.

K: That would have been so helpful. I spent a lot of time trying to learn phrases in Danish, but they never stuck in my head and I feel like that time would’ve been better spent trying to learn German. We were with English speakers in Denmark, but pretty much on our own in German-speaking territory. So going forward from here, with our next 2 months, what do you think is in store, what are you excited for?

S: I’m super pumped for the Isle, in Scotland. I only call it “the Isle” because I don’t know how to pronounce what it’s actually called…so I’m really excited for the Isle, because we’re going to be basically camping, and it’s gonna be awesome. I’m really really excited just to get to Gaunts [House, where we’ll be WWOOFing again], because we’ll finally be able to be in one place for more than a week—we haven’t stayed anywhere for more than a week.

K: Since we left the orchard, yeah.

S: So it’ll be amazing to be able to just like, actually unpack my bag and get comfortable somewhere.

K: It’ll be really nice there too, because a lot our trip will have been behind us, so we won’t have to be planning. Whereas I feel like when we were at the orchard…

S: All we did was plan.

K: All we did was plan and apply for other WWOOFing positions and figure out travel routes and all these kinda things. So it’ll be nice to be able to just be there and then not have all of our backpacker homework to do.

S: Yeah, it’s going to be so nice. I’m just looking forward to that.

K: I feel good about it. I think Christmas in Copenhagen will be good. It’ll be hard to be away, but I’m excited to see some of their Christmas traditions, to be with a lovely Danish family.

S: I feel like once we get to Christmas though, it’s less than two weeks then from when we’ll be home, so we’ll be really excited to get home, it’s gonna be less like missing everyone and more just excited because it’s gonna be really close at that point.

K: Have you been homesick at all?

S: Yeah, I was at first. It was really hard, but at this point it’s just kind of like, I weirdly feel like we’ve been doing this forever, and in Dublin especially I just feel really at home here.

K: Yeah, it’s really homey.

S: Just really comfortable here, whereas in other places I haven’t really felt comfortable. Like, in other cities, I don’t know the language, so there’s always that level of, you know, you don’t always feel safe, necessarily. If something were to come up, you can’t communicate with people, whereas here, it’s just…sometimes I can’t understand a word they’re saying, but they can understand me. And it’s not that big of a city where I feel overwhelmed, versus Paris, which was a tad overwhelming—it was really cool, but a tad overwhelming—so here, it’s just kind of slower paced.

K: I think too, number one having an English speaking country after all this time feels just amazing and comfortable, and I also think that there’s a big Irish influence on American culture, so there are a lot of things that are familiar here, that kind of came from Ireland. Like this pub that we’re sitting in now just looks like Donnely’s in the Ped Mall in Iowa City, it just seems really homey and cozy.

S: I will say though, that I don’t think I’ll ever get used to having to look the other way when I cross the street!

K: Nope! Probably never!

Magical Music Marathon and…Salzburg?

Music City

Refreshed and rejuvenated after our time in Třeboň, Sarah and I arrived in Vienna ready to hit. it. hard. And hit it we did—our classical music marathon began just hours after our check-in at the hostel. Night one got off to a beautiful start with the National Madrigal Choir of Romania at St. Stephen’s Cathedral (or Stephensdom, if that suits your fancy). Despite having the word “madrigal” in their name, they were quite a versatile ensemble, performing everything from medieval plainchant to a wild post-war piece that involved howling, shouting, and a giant chime. Sarah’s reaction: “It was like they were possessed…but in a good way if that’s possible? It was funny. It was weird.”

For the rest of our days in Vienna, we settled into a nice routine—walking and exploring during the day, a veggie dinner at Asia Box To Go (cheap generalized Asian food next to our hostel), followed by a concert in the evening. Vienna boasts over 15,000 music events per year, so there was an overwhelming array of options to choose from. We had to side-step more than a few flyer-pushers and scalpers in powdered wigs. Our small budget and lack of advance planning nixed anything from the Philharmonic or the three opera houses, but we did score some standing-room tickets at the Musikverein for our last night. After throwing a few elbows to secure a half-decent spot behind the barricade (don’t even get me started…), we enjoyed a straightforward (costume-free) performance of Beethoven’s genteel 1st Symphony and a pair of Mozart keyboard duets.

In Search of Beethoven

Vienna is plastered with various Mozart-themed attractions, but I decided to skip the crowds in favor of a quiet visit to the Beethoven Pasqualatihaus, where Ludwig van Beethoven lived and composed several symphonies and Fidelio, his only opera. Apart from a plaque and a few small posters on the outside of the building, it looks just like any other residence in Vienna, and I felt like a bit of a trespasser when I poked my head through the front door into the deserted courtyard. A little paper sign told me to head up to the 4th floor (5th to you Americans), so up I went on the winding stone staircase.

After my climb, I peeked around another door and found myself in an airy, sun-drenched apartment overlooking the University of Vienna. There were just a few well-chosen personal items, portraits, and manuscripts, which left plenty time and brain-space to just soak in my surroundings. I eavesdropped on a pair of Beethoven buffs, paced from window to window, and listened to a few excerpts from Fidelio and Symphony no. 7 piped through an old pair of headphones…dream come true for my middle-school self!

Sick in Salzburg

The hills are alive! With the sound of…sneezes.

Unfortunately there’s not much to say about our time in Salzburg, because we both got sick. Slept, laid in bed, sat by the river. That’s pretty much it. Oh—and got judged real hard by our go-getting English roommate, who waltzed in one night and asked us, “Have you not left the room today?” in her BBC accent. No Carrie, we didn’t leave the room. None of your beeswax, OK?

Take a look gander at the photos, and come back soon for a little frolic in France!