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Une Baguette OR A Real Vacation [Secret Life of an Expat]

As English speaking voices tend to do, a woman’s voice carries from 20 feet away. She’s sharing personal details about her son with a couple of strangers. It’s ten a.m. and the woman in the couple drinks from a 1.5 liter bottle of (not diet) Pepsi. The man is that kind of  fat that makes him look like a too high pile of rocks with a little head balanced on top. The slightly horrifying people around me have large stomachs, seem too white, and speak with twangy accents that I’m no longer used to. But even so, it’s nice to be around North Americans again. In 11 hours I’ll see my own people in Maine. I’m going home for two weeks. Two weeks of English. Two weeks of forgetting to wonder whether what I just said was comprehensible or even grammatically correct. Two weeks of my brain not fussing about gender and direct object placement every time I open my mouth.

My French language skills get better and better, but as always, the more I know, the more I know I have to learn. In my opinion, people who think they know everything are ignorant. In this case, I mean to define ignorant as just plain stupid.

You know, if you say j’ignore (I ignore) in French, it means you don’t know about it. You’re not aware, instead of the more American definition where you purposely make yourself unaware by not paying attention, like one might do with one’s annoying little brother.

There are a lot of words like this. The French call them faux amis (false friends) and they’re a pain in the butt when you’re learning French as an anglophone, or English as a francophone. They are words that exist in both languages but have different meanings.

Or there are words that are flipped in a way that tells you they mean almost the exact same thing. For example, experiment and experience. In French, they mean the opposite. A scientist in France would do an expérience on a lab rat. A French job announcement would be in search of someone expérimenté. It reminds me of the American term “I experimented in college,” which in french would become “I experienced in college” which works just as well. The subtle nuances of “-ment” and “-ence” make all the difference.

I’ve also noticed that in French, you sometimes have to say more to mean less. For example, the verb aimer means “to like”. But if you say je t’aime it means I love you. To say I like you, you have to add a word. Je t’aime bien. Seems like a smaller sentiment would merit fewer words.

Sometimes the negative can be the positive. I always get tripped up on this one: if you want to say you don’t care, or you don’t give a damn, you say je m’en fiche. This is an affirmative statement, because there is no negative ne – pas nesting around the verb, fiche. So if you want to say that you DO care, you have to say je ne m’en fiche pas or “I don’t not care.” Come to think about it, I don’t think they have a word that would mean “care” in the way an American would say “I don’t care”. The closest thing I can think of is to take care, prendre soin, which is more like being careful or nursing someone back to health.

And the very worst part about learning French for someone who doesn’t already speak a romance language is GENDER. French words have to be learned with the le or la before them, so you know their gender, not just for the initial speaking of the word, but if the word becomes a direct object, you have to know whether to call it he or she instead of a simple it. If you don’t say the correct article before your noun, your French interlocutor might not understand. Try it — go into a french bakery and ask for un baguette. Even though everybody standing in line is buying a baguette, and the shelves are full of baguettes, and it’s a French bakery for goodness sake, if you don’t say UNE they might just look at each other and shrug. It happened to me.

I still have to think about gender for almost every French word that I speak, and I very often repeat myself and change the gender back and forth until a French person gets annoyed and corrects me just to shut me up. J’ai acheté une baguette. Un baguette? Une baguette? Un baguette? Sometimes, when my brain doesn’t know which way to go, my mouth produces this garbled in between word that could be heard as un or that could be heard as une. Or I make a cross-word between le and la, hoping that with my accent, I’ll be creating an all purpose “it” noise that maybe will be interpreted correctly by the French listener. It seems to work, but I feel like I’m cheating and my words sound muddy and unclear, the way they already think Americans talk. This is a habit I need to break, it will only hurt me in the long run.

One day I will speak French without the incessant ramble of my inner regret and reprimand. Did I say that right? Did they understand me? Why aren’t I studying more French. I should be reading French books. That would make me speak better. My accent has gone to hell. Why aren’t I trying harder?!

So yeah, two weeks of pulling the old American idioms out of storage and using cultural references that only my fellow patriots can understand. Two weeks of letting the French part of my brain relax, and not always be at the ready for a language flip. Two weeks of talking like a normal person. It’ll be like a real vacation.

featured image credit: swanky