Yesterday was the first day of my French course. And I felt like the village idiot whose tongue got tied every time someone asked me a question. What was I thinking, agreeing to move to a region where I can’t even speak or understand the language to function as myself, let alone as a mother of three children!? Just 20km in the right direction, we could be living across the language border where everything is in (Swiss) German, the way it’s been for the past 10 years.
Ten years! Ten years ago, I was already here. Puzzling over strange letters like ü and ö and ä and twisting my tongue trying to read them aloud. Drawing tables on little index cards, marking pages and highlighting words in my language workbook, and labelling furniture around the house “der Stuhl”, “die Türe”, “das Tisch” like a studious fourth grader. For the first few months, I refused to go to the bakery to buy bread because I was terrified of the blank stares I would get whenever I tried to say, “Gerne, ein Zopf, bitte.”
And here I am again. But instead of playing the guessing game with der, die, das and all its conjugations, I am faced with words built with eux, eau, oeu, and letters like é, è, ê. Yet, that’s just the beginning!
The worst of it is, I had voted for this. I said to Mr. M: Now is the time. If we would have to move to the French part anyway one day (because of Mr. M’s career), now is the best time to do it, I said, while the children are young, so they could learn the language early. We could always move back to the German speaking region after a few years, I said. Language would be less of a problem then, I said. That’s right. That’s what I said. And I insisted really, as if I was the one fluent in the French language.
Why hadn’t I listened to Mr. M every time he tried convincing me against this family decision? He was worried about me. He said, “I can’t be your translator all the time.” Oh don’t worry, I said. It would be the perfect opportunity to finally learn! I said. I’ve always wanted to learn, I said. It’ll be great! I said.
But who was I kidding. The children have had the least of the problems. Our eldest is already attending first grade and everyday on his way home, chats up his friends in French as if it was his only language. The 3-year old, though having to struggle initially, is now coming home from playgroup with new French words. The baby…well, is still a baby, and just smiles at everyone, regardless of the language they speak. Frankly, he’s been my excuse until now, as to why I haven’t gotten around to taking language courses. The baby was priority.
But the excuse is now a year old. That means we’ve also been here a year and counting. And I’m still getting lost in translation. I’ve survived this long by driving east across the language border, whenever I had to run errands that entailed more conversations. So instead of visiting the local store in town, lest the check-out lady were to require more than the usual “merci beaucoup!” and “au revoir,” from me, I went to where my tongue wouldn’t tie up.
Ah but really, who am I kidding now. Even if a few kilometers east can make me feel at ease, avoiding French is not really an option. Aside from the reality that we can’t move for at least 3 more years, all of this is fortunately familiar, if not miserabely so. Afterall, speaking and living in (Swiss) German had been equally unimaginable just ten years ago! I’ve been here before, and though it’s not easier the second time around, the discomfort is actually worth it in the long run. I just have to remember that. Reliving the struggles of making sense of life through foreign words might just be a new hobby of mine!
I know, in a few months of deliberate learning, I will find myself again, en français this time, and start to finally feel at ease again. Maybe even effortlessy chatting with the lady at the check-out with more than the usual niceties.
She would ask me, “Comment allez vous, Madame?” And cheerfully without batting an eye, I would reply, “Oui, merci, Mme. Boucher! Quoi de neuf aujourd’hui?” But right now, I don’t even know if people say “quoi de neuf” outside of textbooks…so hopefully I’d have a more appropriate response for my imaginary Mme. Boucher one day! Until then, my new favorite book will be covered with scribbles and highlighted lines, labels and many question marks, and my new favorite place to go will be my morning French class twice a week, even if I’ll feel like the village idiot for a little while longer.