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!`

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