Preverbal and Illiterate
My father is French, but I was raised American (in Florida) to the extent that my half-Frenchness always felt like trivia, not identity. I moved to Paris about 18 months ago, and with each passing day think the French know more than just about anyone when it comes to how to live in this world. Except for all those times when I think they've got their brains filled with Camembert. I talk about it at my weblog, La Coquette. Like most people, I'm just crazy-obsessed with Paris.
I really couldn't speak French when I moved here. Yes, I'd had five years of French training in high school, but do you know anyone who became fluent from studying a foreign language in school? Perhaps the Swedish, but those people are robots when it comes to languages, and besides they invented Ikea. We cannot be held to their standards. The darkest day came around week two when I realized that I didn't know how to say my own last name. We sat on my French cousin's bed (the maternal, wonderful Jeanne lives right next door), and went through a round of protracted Eliza Doolittle--style coaching until I could say "Fourmont" in a way that the French might register as, er, an actual word. It is at moments like these that you realize in the most poignant and profound way that you are just so screwed.
The language situation is better now. Having French friends helped. Strangely enough, I've had my effect on them, too. At the risk of sounding like a jaded 15-year-old, I'll admit that I use the word "cheesy" (meaning "lame"), perhaps to excess. It wasn't long before I heard my friends Olivier and Guillaume discussing a Jennifer Lopez film saying, "Ouaih, je sais que c'est hyper cheesy, mais..." They've been tossing around "cheesy" for months now. Ah, the joys of cultural exchange.
One of the creepiest and most exciting things that happens when you first move abroad is that you instantly get attention. I tried my best to blend in, but in retrospect, my hair, dress, the way I opened my mouth and produced a sound as warped as a bloated piece of driftwood--I was an alien and people stared a lot. I call this phenomenon my foreign boobies. (I saw John Mayer on a late-night talk show once; he talked about what he calls his "famous boobies,"-- as in, being famous allows him to know the plight of women with large breasts worldwide. People stare.)
Foreign boobies is fun at first. ("I was stopped on the street and invited for drinks!" "Some guy just told me I'm a redheaded angel!") But soon, you realize you don't really want attention for being, in essence, preverbal and illiterate. Now that I can form sentences, my
boobies seemed to have deflated a bit. Hope they don't go entirely flat.
So, a typical day for me. I make my living from a cobbled-together work week of part-time jobs (dog-sitting, English tutoring, freelance writing) as I wait for my French citizenship to come through. Sometimes I'm busy, sometimes not. Either way, I've learned that if you don't have business cards and your job can be accomplished in pajamas or workout clothing, people don't really think you have a job. They are especially suspicious if you live in Paris, land where doing nothing is practically an art form. Even I sometimes walk around in the summertime, past cafes teeming with customers still lunching at 4:00 pm, and wonder: is there anyone working in this city? I know that sounds unbelievably Type A coming from someone who counts the strenuous dog-sitting amongst her jobs. (Don't kid yourself. Dog-sitting = bank.)
I'm writing this from my Latin Quarter apartment. It is lovely, although a little less so in summertime, the witching period when tourists attack. I live three blocks from Notre Dame and hear church bells hourly. One good round of church bells when I'm stressed or sad, and I feel like I've done about 50 downward dogs. (I was crazy into yoga in the States. Now I'm into church bells.) I have to go give an English lesson soon, and I'm going to walk carefully down my winding staircase with its wonky narrow parts (my building was chopped in half during the Haussman era, right down the stairway center) out into the courtyard. The covered passage leading from courtyard to street feels cool, even in July. It's stone and smells like a mossy cave. My building has existed since the 16th Century.
I'll heave open the single heavy door (it means this was not a rich building; the richer ones had double doors to accommodate horse carriages), and my foreign
boobies and I will slip onto the cobblestones of the close Latin Quarter streets with their throngs of tourists. Oh, and if it's anything like every other summer day in my neighborhood, there will be much, much bigger foreign boobies roaming around.