Speak to any ex-pat living outside their native country and ask them what’s the biggest challenge in their overseas life and I bet the majority would say ‘language.’ From the simple things such as buying a stamp to the complexities of friendships (and sometimes-closer relationships), language skills – or the lack of them – loom large.
When I arrived in France, I was no exception. A 30-year-old O level in French had left me ill-prepared. My husband added further pressure. His job, he felt, was to renovate a cottage, build another cottage and then convert the stables into a workshop. My job was…well, everything else, including dealing with all the paperwork and bureaucracy that goes with emigrating to a new country. His view was that I had one French O level more than him, so I was the obvious choice for the job – unless I fancied fixing tiles on the roof?
The O level did help as it gave me some vocabulary and structure to build on, and I started French lessons straight away with the charming Zelda, another expat Brit but one who speaks perfect French. Seated in McDonald’s, we dove into mostly-conversational French, much to the delight and loud amusement of surrounding small children, incredulous that an adult could be so incoherent.
But my frustration levels were sky-high. I had made a successful career out of my communication skills, and loved language and literature. Why had I put myself into a situation where those skills and that passion were redundant? Had I reduced myself to a life of baby talk and confused looks?
More than 10 years later, that frustration can still linger but causes me much less distress. I am not a natural linguist and will never be mistaken for a French woman (although the occasional French person thinks I might be Belgian). But I have stuck with French lessons (yep, still going…), battled through radio and television programmes, struggled with newspapers and magazines a dictionary by my side, joined hobby groups where I was the only non-French speaker – and reached some kind of success.
Of course, I’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way. I had to walk away from a conversation puce with embarrassment when I realised that I’d told a builder that I was a putain (prostitute), rather than a friend (copine) of a mutual acquaintance (I know, I know, the words aren’t very similar at all but when you’re under pressure…). I was known to several neighbourhood children as ‘the lady who speaks funny.’
But as well as being reduced to tears of frustration and occasional rage, I’ve laughed too. For example: I reached into a kitchen drawer for a zester and just couldn’t find it (thrown into the kitchen bin with assorted peelings and scores of teaspoons, I suspect.). So I headed into our local town to the small, old-fashioned cook shop. There is little self-service there – I knew I was going to have to ask for what I wanted. ‘There’s no way it’s called a zester,’ I thought as I drove, so rehearsed my request: ‘I would like a small tool that removes very small pieces of skin from a lemon,’ I decided. Once in the shop, I carefully enunciated my requirements. The owner listened with a quizzical but helpful look on her face, obviously deconstructing my convoluted sentence. ‘Erm…un…zester, peut-être…’ and her voice trailed away as I started to giggle. Obligingly, she laughed with me, I handed over my few euros and escaped, having reinforced my reputation as a well- meaning madwoman.
I’ve taught the same village kids to make scones at the Wednesday afternoon cookery club; was told approvingly at the local sous-prefecture that I was the only person that day to have ALL the correct documents for registering a car, DESPITE being English; and, at our neighbours’ daughter’s wedding, translated several innuendo-laden jokes (although I baulked at one. The meaning was obvious, given the gestures, but I didn’t care to put it into words…).
And I’m still very, very careful when using the words putain and copine…
Sue Sharp lives in Pas de Calais, northern France.