Wednesday, May 18, 2011

It's the French

I made a phone call this morning to a school to which I recently applied for a job.  This school is an international, bilingual school in southern France and although at a bilingual school one might expect to encounter bilingual people, this is still, after all, France, and so one is expected to do one's best to speak french.  Knowing this and dreading the actual experience of speaking french to another human being rather than in my own head, I have made all sorts of excuses why I really don't need to call and follow up on this position at all.  Certainly they will contact me when they are ready, or it would be best to email yet again so that I can choose my words carefully and with the help of my human translator (aka, my husband), or actually--and this is really the best excuse--it is possible that my husband's stepmom's friend knows the school director and will happen to mention that I am here in Provence and ready to work just about whenever.  If any of these things will please happen, I will not have to make this dreaded phone call in french.

No dice. Just like any job in any country that I have ever applied for, persistence pays off and a personal phone call, appearance or handshake can really move things along. Particularly here, where personal relationships seem to count for much more in the hiring process than do well-written resumés.  So call I must.  I would actually prefer to just show up at the school and introduce myself in person, benefitting from the fact that my fluency in french pleasantly increases when hand motions, smiles and nods are involved.  But at the risk of seeming presumptuous, intrusive or culturally inappropriate, I must call first and get the ok to show up on their doorstep for a meeting.

Why is this so scary?  I've traveled to several countries without speaking the language, worked with teenaged orphaned girls without speaking their language, worked with rural guatemalan farmers without speaking their language, dated a chilean waiter without really speaking his language; what is it about this experience that is so much more daunting?  Oh, that one's easy to answer.  It's the French.

The French who love their language as if it were a child.  The French who speak quickly and curtly and stare at you quizzically for the most minor of mispronunciations.  The French who love sport so much that they have made a sport of their own words for the exercise of their tongues, dipping and turning, leaping through words, curling rrr's and eee's and uuu's with a robust fragility, the paradox of which only the French can attain. The language of this country is not simply language, it is art.  And in a country where art is not simply art, but is much more akin to religion, you can imagine how precious is the act of speaking.

And this, this is what terrifies me to make the phone call I must make in french.  I avoid and distract, stammer, defer and change the subject.  Finally, I accept my fate, and then, I cry.  I squeeze out the last bit of debilitating fear and then grab pen and paper and write out any possible phrase I might be called on to utter in this terrifying language.  Micael coaches me on the best way to arrange my words, questions they might ask me, and the best way to ask them to please (for the love of art!) speak more slowly.  I dial, my stomach flips, it rings, two more flips, they answer, it drops into my toenails, and I let fly a rapid series of all the phrases I have written before me in an order that I can only pray makes sense.  An answer--the woman I am asking for does not work today.  My response--and when...?  Tomorrow.  Au revoir!  And click.  The whole debacle lasted less than, who knows?! Four seconds?  It's over.  Which is what I think for about four second more before I realize that I've just set myself up for a re-run tomorrow.

Oh, the joys of stretching one's horizons. Let tomorrow come.  Whatever doesn't kill me will just give me cause to go drink another glass of wine.


grace said...

This is so hysterical, Bri! I love imagining you with your little list of phrases, about to make the call.
The paragraph about the "sport" and "art" of the French language is so brilliant. "Robust fragility" so perfectly describes the language!

caronita said...

you too have a way of making words take on shape, sight, sound; of envoking laughter, tears and a soft, thoughtful smile in the people who are blessed to read the art you write. even though our language can be harsh and clumsy, you make it into beautiful prose that i devote all my attention to reading. they'd be lucky to have you...

Anonymous said...

geez louise! all that jibberish...just to say you were nervous about making a phone call!? Micael you have much patience my friend. i will be praying for you!

Bri its a phone call...dont be a wimp. drink a bottle of wine and then call. it will come much easier! ---zeph

Chibani007 said...

Oui, c'est vrai. Nous sommes vraiment amoureux de notre langue et nous sommes nombreux ( dont moi ) a en être de fervents défenseurs. Je conçois que cela puisse être difficile de l'assimiler pour quelqu'un qui n'est pas " né dedans ". Mais c'est certainement plus facile d'apprendre le français a 25/26 ans que d'apprendre l'anglais à 81ans !!!! LOL