When I went to Italy with my grandmother three– no…five years ago. Five years ago? Is that real?
Anyway, when I went to Italy with my grandmother, I stayed for three weeks. And by the end of it, without studying, and not to brag, but I had pretty much nailed the Italian language, like let me be real. I can’t tell whether I’ve been watching too much New Girl and taking too many confidence tips from Schmidt but I crushed Italian. I crushed it. I could understand when things were spoken to me. I could respond in complex sentences, as long as they were in either present or past tense. I could order food, ask for directions, let someone know what I wanted, ask if they needed help. I crushed it.
Until the second I got home, when I forgot literally everything I learned. It was pretty sad. But I was really proud of myself for getting it so easily, I mean three weeks is a lot to that guy I read about who learned Icelandic in like two days or something but to me, it was no time at all and I was a freakin’ genius.
Nobody told me otherwise. My parents were kind enough to let me labor under the delusion that my language skills were really so great that I could become conversational in a language in three weeks.
Nothing prepared me for this.
I’ve been learning a lot of lessons in my first like three entire days in Lille, but I think the most important has been my own limitation. I mean, I’ve studied French for five years. Five years. That’s how long it’s been since I went to Italy, that’s how long I’ve been studying this language. And yet, plus-que-parfait eludes me. I forget the verbs for the simplest things, like open and close, or give and take. And don’t even start me on the subjunctive. Because honestly, I’m serious, there is not enough room on the Internet for my thoughts on the subjunctive.
When I first got here, the only French I was really speaking was to order food. Which is, like, the first thing you learn in French because the daily verbs are the simplest to conjugate and the whole language is structured around those conjugations. So I had ordering down pretty well. A few times, the waiter or waitress didn’t even respond in English, which I counted as a win.
But when my Mom left, I went out to coffee and explore the city with a couple of friends and I honestly, I couldn’t understand most of what they said in French. I’ll be real, I felt super inadequate. I still do. It’s not their fault, my friends were super nice about it. But I mean, five years is a long time. That’s a small child. French is my small child and it’s been having a tantrum for the past three days and I’m tired of it.
Anyway, I went to Mass on Sunday and I couldn’t understand a single thing and I got so mad at French that I stayed in my room the rest of the day, even though I had put on eyeshadow and looked awesome. I cried and ruined it, of course, and I watched the entire second season of New Girl in one sitting, and even started the third season before I called my parents on FaceTime. But of course, because the universe is the worst, FaceTime froze and I couldn’t see my mom or my dad or my sister but hey, who needs to see the people you love when you’re thousands of miles away anyway.
My friends wanted to go out for another drink (“On a school night?” asked the mother in me) but I turned them down, turned the Netflix language to French, found some French Spotify podcasts, and just absorbed for a few hours.
The next day, we had our big French exam. Now we’d heard a lot about this exam, and we were all really nervous. It determines the level of French we’ll be in all year. And I was freaking out cause I knew I had been embarrassing myself in every interaction I’d had that weekend so I was sure it would be long and arduous and terrible. So I put an orange in my purse, zipped up the boots I convinced my mother to give me, and went out to conquer that test.
And guess what? It was like four stupid pages, mostly fill-in-the-blank, and two short essays. I was expecting to be stood in front of a panel of judges for them to test my accent and aural comprehension skills. I thought it’d be like that scene from Monsters University, where if you fail, you fail in front of everyone and also might damage some property in the process.
But no. I probably didn’t do very well, but I know I knew some of the things on that test. And then I spent the rest of the day with some really awesome Italians who spoke French about as well as I did and they told me that even though I wasn’t fully Italian, they adopted me anyway, all of which made me feel a little more adequate. By the end of the day, I was speaking French pretty fluently.
There are still things that I don’t understand. Like, the stove. The stove still drives me crazy, I mean who invented an electric stove that shuts off every forty-five seconds and then turns completely off every ten minutes? Who did that? And the fact that everyone here speaks like they’re on their last breath and they have to say every single thing they’ve ever thought as quickly as humanly possible before they pass on to the next life. Also, the peanut butter? I found the peanut butter in the international section which legitimately almost gave me an identity crisis, so thanks for that, France. And it’s like never sunny here, I’m in the French version of England but with better food and kinder people. No offense, England, you’re just the reason we left you in 1776.
But there are a lot of things I love, too. Like my room, cause my mom and I made it super cozy with rose-themed things like a pinkish-purple blanket that feels like it’s been woven from your earliest, softest memories and also matches my sheets. I have a little corner of my room around my bed that’s covered in pictures from home. Also, my perfume, shampoo, conditioner, and body wash are all rose-scented, so you’re welcome, France. You’ve been delivered a bouquet of roses from America.
But seriously, the food is delicious. I’m having a love affair with goat cheese and I still don’t like beer but the beer here is good, as far as beer goes for me. And the people I’ve met could not be kinder, I mean I walked into the kitchen the first night and like a dozen people invited me to sit at their table and eat cassava and ice cream and talk and answer my questions, and then the next night I almost destroyed them at Monopoly and they really didn’t have to do any of that, so I appreciate that. All of the students have bonded over our shared trauma of being in a completely new country, so that’s been really sweet. We all help each other out, and the people who know French really well translate for us when we really need to know what the director of our program is saying. We make jokes that have historical context. We take pictures of the old, beautiful city that looks like it’s been on one of my travel Pinterest boards of places that I think look like they don’t exist at all.
So, to recap: it’s been difficult. But I’ve found people that are having the same problems as me, and that’s been the most helpful thing so far. Just knowing that it’s okay not to know all the time is enough. At least for now.