My Little Client
It is not long into my exchange that I realize I should try and find part-time work to fund my travels, groceries, and other things. One of my friends suggests I post an ad on a French website called leboncoin, which, for you Canadians out there, is essentially kijiji.
I draft the ad and have two French friends read it over, and it is something along the lines of, “My name is Marisa, I am Canadian, I can teach you English, please hire me.” The accompanying logo is painfully cheesy: I have added a google image of a French flag crossed with a Canadian one captioned by the words, “EASY ENGLISH”.
Quite a while after I post the ad I receive an email from a woman who is looking for someone to help her daughter with English conversation. I am elated. I call her back, trying desperately to come across as professional even though I am very aware of my accent and have rehearsed the conversation in my head beforehand.
My little client is 14 years old, adorable, and extremely dedicated to the language. I decide instantly to only teach her relevant things, to make sure she can get by in a store or restaurant or meeting a new friend. I dive headfirst into our courses, drafting a lesson plan and conducting role plays. We analyze scenes from “Friends” and “Forrest Gump,” we discuss the lyrics from John Lennon’s “Imagine.” We do read alouds and rehearse the elusive “th” sound in English.
I make sure she knows expressions I wish I knew before coming to France. One of our first role plays takes place in a store.
“If someone in a store asks you if they can help you with anything,” I point out, “you might say, ‘I’m just browsing, thanks,’ or ‘Actually, yes, do you have this in my size?’ or ‘Do you have this in a small?’ or ‘Do you have this in red’?”
On the way back from my first lesson, I message my mother and tell her: “Teaching is rewarding but so difficult. How do you do it?”
“Of course, it’s not all perfect,” she says. “But the kids make me laugh. It’s never boring. Never the same.”
Before I came to France, I did not know I spoke English
Well, part of me knew, I guess. But like most people, I didn’t think about it on a daily basis. When I put pencil to paper in class, I didn’t say to myself, Here I am, about to write in English. I would simply think, Here I am, about to write. English has never really been a language to me. It is, rather, a way to exist. It is the words I speak and the songs I sing and the books I buried myself in throughout my childhood.
And now I am extremely aware of the fact I “speak English.” I am aware of the absurdity of words like “crosswalk” and “milk”. I am aware of English’s strange intonation.
A language is a lot more than a language. It is culture, it is music, it is art. And in learning French you assume parts of this French identity; the people, a way of seeing the world, and to a lesser extent, the wine, the cheese. I try to impart this information—which I feel for some reason is crucial—to my little student.
Look at All the Cats
I meet one of my closest friends while taking out my garbage. He is standing on the step, smoking.
“So many cats here,” I try in French, just to make conversation. I am attempting to point out the unusually high number of cats that populate the residence complex.
“What?” he says. My French was not clear.
“A lot of cats,” I try again. “Many cats.”
“Cats,” I relent.
We get to talking and then suddenly we are friends. He is from Morocco and speaks four languages—Arabic, French, English, and Spanish—fluently, a quality uncommon where I am from but apparently extremely common here. We drink sweet tea and discuss this country and the language and the administration. Soon enough, another one of his friends joins us. I am telling the two of them about one of my proudest purchases here, a microwave that doubles as an oven.
“This one here bought the worst oven you’ve ever seen,” he says, pointing at his friend.
“Yes,” his friend sighs. “It can only hold—how do you say in English? Deux tiers of a pizza.”
“Two thirds,” I say.
“Right. Two thirds. But actually, this is great.”
“How?” I ask.
“I try to reheat my pizza and it doesn’t fit. The remaining third goes back in the fridge. Better for my health,” he says, grinning.
I smile. It is student struggle at its best: celebrating when things work; laughing it off when they don’t.
I pronounce my name in French when I introduce myself to people, but it doesn’t seem part of me. In the works I have studied, the writings of Eva Hoffman come to mind.
She recounts in her memoirs the impact of the Anglicization of her and her sisters’ names:
Our Polish names didn’t refer to us; they were as surely us as our eyes or hands. These new appellations, which we ourselves can’t yet pronounce, are not us. They are identification tags, disembodied signs pointing to objects that happen to be my sister and myself. We walk to our seats, into a roomful of unknown faces, with names that make us strangers to ourselves (Hoffman 105, Lost in Translation).
An unexpected result of my time in France is my acquisition of English English, because most of the people I spend time with are from England.
Instead of saying that something is a good idea, I want to say, now, that it is a “good shout.”
Instead of the “washroom” I ask for the “toilet.”
I live in a “flat,” now, not an “apartment”.
Recently, I wanted to say, “the store closes at 8:30,” and felt, on the tip of my tongue, “the shop shuts at half-eight.”
Are you Chinese or Something?
To get to my English student, I must take a bus 20ish minutes out of town. A group of elementary schoolers filter onto the bus and occupy every free seat. Two little girls crunch into the seat next to me.
“It’s okay, there’s enough space,” I tell them in French (or what I think is French.)
One of the little girls cocks an eyebrow at me. She has a brown, curly ponytail and is probably around four years old. “Are you Chinese or something?”
“No,” I laugh. “I’m English.”
She gives her supervisor—a lanky guy who can’t be more the fifteen years old—the side-eye. She says to him, “Because I didn’t understand anything she said…”
Her supervisor is visibly cringing, eyes wide, placing a finger over his lips in the hopes of getting her to quiet down.
“It’s okay,” I tell him, and it really is.
When I get off the bus, I am smiling. I say, “Merci-aurevwah,” to the bus driver, the same way I’ve heard French people saying it when getting off the bus. “Thanks-goodbye,” as though it is one word.
The People You Meet
A French friend once told me she loves this blog, but that it seems I have had many bad experiences.
I wouldn’t call them bad, actually. I think every experience is interesting—and I like the neutrality of this word, ‘interesting’.
At its best, the exchange has me dancing in the living room of my friend’s apartment to the pop-funk of Amadou and Miriam, a blind, middle-aged Senegalese pop duo. At its worst, it has me shaking with anger at the front desk of my residence, because the concierge has seen me, but has not greeted me, letting my uneasy “Bonjour” hover between us like stale air.
The exchange is rife with mild frustrations. In the first weeks, I bought little desserts when I really wanted yogurt, an indoor broom instead of an outdoor one, pillows that were too big
for my pillowcases, strange cheese that was too strong, and finally, citrus tea instead of black how I like it, just because I did not know what the word agrumes on the package meant.
If I had to describe this exchange, I would say while it is sometimes bad and sometimes good, it is always interesting.
There is one thing that is missing in this blog, and it is the people. I keep them faceless and nameless so as not to offend them, but the reality is that it is the people who populate this exchange. It is the people that make it exciting and tense and different. Sometimes I feel the urge to write about my friend with the flared jeans and studded backpack; my friend who wears paisley print pants and believes that everything and everyone she meets is “just lovely”; my red-faced professor who swore that anyone who turned in their project 10 seconds late will receive a fail grade, no exceptions; my friend who shares the same deadpan sense of humour I do, and always makes me grin without fail.
Every time I meet someone amazing (as so many of them are) I experience a small heartbreak, like small cuts on your hands that you don’t realize are there until you run them under hot water. Because I know that for every good person there will eventually be a goodbye, because I am not from here, and when I leave, I may not be back for a while.
My first ever rental car is a white Toyota Yaris. It took much time and effort to get my hands on.
After having been turned away from nearly every rental agency at the Marseille airport, my friends and I write a list of all the requirements we have been presented in order to find the one company that will rent to us. The list is something like: do we need an international drivers’ license, is there a young driver fee, do you need my passport, do you need my credit card, will you rent to me if I am only 20, how many years do you need to have on your license, do you have five-seaters, do we need to fill up the gas before coming back, how much is that total?
We reserve a car and I realize, at the last possible minute, that Europeans tend to drive standard. I can only drive automatic. It is too late to get refunded and I have already paid 44 euros (around 60 CDN) for a car I cannot drive.
My friends and I are determined. We go to the agency and very nicely ask them for a refund, which we actually manage to get. Then we go next door to Europcar, who has automatics and will rent to 20-year-olds.
The car is an electric and makes no sound when you turn it on. Once behind the wheel, I panic, and wonder if I will remember how to drive, but of course everything is fine. The roads are narrower than I am used to and I drive well below the speed limit, but when I hit the minimum speed, 110, 130—I feel like I am hurtling down the road at the speed of light.
I tell myself to calm down and keep driving. To slow my heartrate, I try to think of how proud my father would be that I am doing this, that I am driving somewhere I am not familiar with. My younger sister is one of the most intuitive drivers I know, so I pretend she is next to me, telling me, “It’s alright, Mar.” I pretend she is standing outside the when I park, easing me into the spot with clear gestures.
I remind myself how similar the roads are to those in Toronto, (aside from their narrowness and hairpin turns, of course.) This is not so different, I tell myself.
At the Beach
When we finally get to Port Miou at the Calanques, I stumble out of the car in relief.
We wade into water that is blue and clear—and freezing cold. “I’m from the Caribbean,” I point out to my friends, grinning. “You call this a beach?” I ease myself into water anyway. The saltwater taste on my lips makes me feel like I am home.
It is only later, when we are sitting on a wall high above the sea that we realize the trip was worth it; the views are stunning. We toss pebbles down the cliffside so that they can reach where we cannot. We watch men fish at the base of the hill and wonder how they got down there. I know, then, that when we drive back I will be more comfortable and that things will be better, and they are.
We wave at unknown sailors on a ship turning into the quay. They wave back.
“I love people,” my friend points out, vaguely. “Two sets of strangers, waving at one another.”
Far below, the water collides with the cliffs, creating white foam. This extreme display of force holds my gaze. I look out at where the ocean blurs into the horizon, feeling like we are on the edge of the world, straddling the fine line between order and chaos.