It’s been five and a half months in Strasbourg. This blows my mind. Half a year here, and still life feels like a waiting room; waiting for my French to improve, waiting for solid friendships to form, waiting for our money to stop fluctuating quite so madly.
It’s all a work in progress. Our apartment feels like a real home now, decorated with books and wooden things and one hundred thousand plants that make me sneeze. Once every couple of months, when we’re feeling particularly determined and stable, we head out for the day and return with armfuls of fresh plant life, usually to replace those that have been lovingly over-watered to the point that they flop over and turn into mulch.
Along with our home, my French is improving. It’s slower than I’d have liked, and sometimes I want to slap my brain for being so sluggish, but it’s getting there. I’ve begun translating a Tin Tin book—Les Cigares du Pharaon—into English. I’ve only got three pages in so far, and it’s taken around three hours. I read one panel in French, and try to approximate what it might mean. Then I write it down in my notepad in French, look up any words I don’t know, and write the translated English version below, in red ink. It’s very slow, but enormously fulfilling.
I still use Duolingo from time to time, although it feels like cheating, or learning-lite. I must have done two hundred hours on Duolingo by now, and I can’t help but feel that if I’d spent the same amount of time taking classes, I’d be halfway fluent.
Spoken French is infinitely more forgiving. The language is all about conjugating and masculine and feminine and whatnot, but you can’t actually hear a lot of the differences out loud. The French for ‘I eat’, for example, is ‘je mange’. The French for ‘you eat’ is ‘tu manges’. The French for ‘they eat’ is ‘ils mangent’. Written down, it’s a pain. Said out loud however, mange, manges and mangent are pronounced exactly that same.
This is a blessing; it means I can speak a little more freely without having to perform linguistic chemistry mid-conversation. On Duolingo however, where everything is written, I seem to spend most of my time being slagged off by a cartoon owl because I’ve accidentally mis-gendered a bowl of soup.
Even when I balls up my phrasing entirely I’m finding I can still be understood. Only yesterday I was sitting with some friends in the park, and I’d got tangled up in a story I was attempting to recount in French. I’d been talking about a full English breakfast I’d made hours earlier when I realised I didn’t know the word for ‘bacon’. In my desperation, I instead described how I’d spent the morning eating ‘petites pieces de cochon’, or ‘little pieces of pig’.
I get confused increasingly often these days, but it’s only because I’m experimenting more with the language as I grow bolder. When I first moved here I used to be sparing in my attempts at speaking, chiming in with only the occasional ‘oui!’ or ‘non!’ when absolutely necessary.
‘Would you like a bag for your items?’
‘And do you want your receipt?’
‘Okay, have a nice day.’
Now though, I’ve accumulated enough of a vocabulary that I can tell simple stories—or at least I like to think I can. In English I adore storytelling; sitting with a bunch of friends telling them a big ridiculous tale and making them laugh is one of my greatest pleasures in life. In France I am robbed of this, and it often feels like being gagged. This is why, usually after a few beers, my frustration grows to the point where I burst: I rap the nearest Frenchman on the shoulder, spin them around to face me, and belly-flop off the linguistic diving board.
It usually goes well for the first five or six words, which is about as far as I plan ahead. In an ideal world I’d have time to plan my whole story before telling it—to conjugate the verbs, check my tenses, make sure I’ve got my genders right—but when you’re sat with a group and there’s a lull in the conversation, you have perhaps three seconds at most before somebody else jumps in. If you want to be heard, you have to act fast. And I love to be heard.
I talk a hell of a lot in English. I talk so much, in fact, that many of my oldest friends tend to tune me out after a while. Their eyes glaze over, their phones emerge from their pockets. It’s my own fault really: if I didn’t witter on so much, perhaps my sporadic musings would be of more worth. I get annoyed about this often, and find myself prodding phones out of people’s hands, or tapping them on the knee with increasing force the longer they sit entranced by the little screen in their palm.
‘Hey… hey… as I was saying, I just think- I just think that- hey… hey… just- just stop scrolling Facebook for a minute I’m nearly done… I said I’m nearly d-‘
It’s different in French. Because people can see me straining—veins on my forehead bulging as I wince and sweat in my efforts to remember the word for ‘socks’—they really pay attention. We’ll be at a friend’s for drinks and somebody will burst into the room with urgent news, silencing everyone. Then they’ll realise it was the English guy who was talking—grimacing and clenching and gurning my way through a sentence about how much I like dogs—and they’ll apologise profusely and pull up a chair to wait while I finish.
I’m a real Francophile now, despite the struggle of the first five months. I’ve had so many moments where I’ve been close to giving up, sitting on the sofa with my head in my hands despairing over the language or the complexity of getting set up here legally. I’ve almost hopped on a train home on a couple of tearful occasions. I even screamed into a pillow once, when Jeanne was out at work, which actually made me feel better until I realised a sweet old couple live above us and my sudden roar had probably killed them.
Yes, it’s been tough. As you spend time here however—learning the language and the culture and the sense of humour—the country begins to open up, like the slow unclicking of a sequence of locks and chains wrapped around a treasure chest. It’s been five and a half months now, and I’ve been picking those locks for a while, and I’ve just about managed to ease open the lid of the chest. It may only be open a crack for now, but inside, finally, I can see the glow of gold.