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Secret Life of a Nerd Girl: Slowly but Surely


a blogumn by Gudrun Cram-Drach


My parents just spent a week visiting me here in France. With my little Lonely Planet Paris Encounter Guide, I became tour guide and host. It was a big change for me. In my first 6 weeks or so here, I had been a bit of a wimp about speaking to strangers.

At restaurants I practiced in my head before placing orders and chose menu items that I knew were safe, if not my favorite, because I was afraid to ask questions. I went to the supermarket instead of the open-air market because you don’t have to talk to anyone at the supermarket. They even have those self-serve checkout dealies, but I avoided those too because half of the time they break and you have to ask for help. I always ordered the same baguette because I knew what it was called, even if the multi-grain in the other basket intrigued me more, and I avoided going into M’s favorite wine shop (Les Chevaliers du Vin = The Knights of Wine) because the guys who own it (the Knights) are very friendly, and I knew I would be an awkward failure at small talk.

My parents’ presence yanked me out of my shell.

I took my dad to the market and we asked about the fruit. We bought pastries at the bakery, too many times. Mom prefers Chardonnay, so I asked the Knights for a French equivalent (Bourgogne, if you’re curious, is nothing but Chardonnay). I even had the butcher cut four entrecôtes and put them in marinade, my biggest victory yet!

I know, it’s pathetic. The big, terrifying fear that I always had about speaking French is that my interlocuteur would respond in English, proving that my language skills and accent were unworthy of their response and clearly I would never be any good at anything. Ever.

During my parents’ visit, I learned two things. One, if you keep studying, you improve, even get good enough that strangers can understand you, and two, they respond in English in the touristy areas, not everywhere. As an almost-resident here, I usually avoid those places, and something great about my little suburb is that not many people speak English, so when they hear me fumbling, they wait it out and then just use smaller words. They ask me where I’m from, and ultimately they tolerate me the way they’d tolerate any other immigrant.

I’d rather be an immigrant than a tourist. Tourism is exhausting! I don’t know how people do it and I’m so glad I have years ahead of me to explore this city. Standing still on marble floors, walking slowly staring up at buildings, waiting in line for tickets and sitting in the sun, all while watching your wallet empty on hotel rooms and meals — phew, my feet have been aching all week.

And now that I have the day to myself, all I want to do is lay on the couch and watch TV, but my brain, which has been overloaded by family, languages, and future planning, is spinning on what language to zone out in. I mean, I’ve made all this progress, shouldn’t I keep it going?

One problem is I’m not good enough so that mind-numbing television (like Friends reruns) is actually relaxing in French. I was able to find some English language news for my parents, but, crappy as it is, CNN International isn’t quite what I need. I have so many things I could be reading, books on gardening, meditation, French culture, writing, but they are all in English, and then I would feel guilty. Then, I think, what I really need to do is pull out my Alliance Française textbooks and study… but the lettuce is drying up, my cats want attention, I need to understand the French political party structure, and I should really go exercise to make up for all the over-eating I’ve just done. The stress of it makes me wish I’d already read the meditation book.

I suppose a part of me wants to doze off reading something in English (I’ve got M reading the His Dark Materials trilogy in English and I’m so jealous), to curl up in the shell I just crawled out of and take a nap. And I suppose that’s okay, because I’ll come out soon. We’re going to Harry Potter VI tomorrow night, and we still haven’t decided whether to watch it in French or English. With all my newfound confidence, I’m know I’m ready to order the popcorn, and if I let my brain rest a bit now, I’ll even opt for French.