One Week is the name of the game today. In one week Vlad comes to visit, and as of today I have been in France for one week. And it was certainly a long week.
Packing up and living in another country is already complicated, but when you barely speak the language it is even more difficult. I’m exhausted every day after work, after attending 3 hour meetings or lunches completely in French. (Yes, 3 hour lunches; I’ve already been to two. Between the 2-3 hour lunches and a smoke break every 20 minutes it’s a wonder anything gets done in this country! I’m kidding of course. Kind of…) I understand French fairly well, so during these long meetings I at least know what’s going on.
Both my comprehension and speaking have already improved a lot after just one week, although speaking is of course still difficult. Today I had to speak on the phone in French, more than once actually, and although I was terrified of doing it, it actually went ok. I didn’t have to crawl under a rock of shame and embarrassment; in fact I felt rather proud of myself afterwards! I’m still afraid of speaking on the phone in Spanish and I’ve studied it for 6 years now, I could never imagine after just 3 semesters!!
So although the first week has been exhausting and at times overwhelming, it has been marked by steady and rapid linguistic improvement. Fortunately I’ve done all this before; studying in Argentina, and to a smaller extent in Guatemala, I had to adjust to a new country and another language. I already know the learning and adjustment process, which helps me put all my frustrations and difficulties into perspective. I know that it’s normal in the beginning to understand every word in a sentence and yet not understand the whole sentence. I know that it’s normal to be speaking well, then all of a sudden hit a wall and sound like a caveman the next few sentences. I know that it’s normal to completely misunderstand a simple question that in all other circumstances you would have understood perfectly. I’ve experienced all this before, so I know that it will eventually pass and I will be able to express myself with ease.
One unfortunate difference between me living in Europe vs. Latin America is that in Argentina and especially Guatemala it was obvious I was a foreigner, so if someone spoke to me and I didn’t understand, they quickly realized and repeated what they said more slowly or in English. Here I fit right in (at least I like to think so!) so people on the street or in stores will speak to me normally and I either look rude, antisocial or just plain dumb for not answering. Vlad had to come to my rescue a few times and answer questions for me, but now he is gone! Think about it, if a salesperson approaches you in a store and says something to you, they are probably asking “May I help you?”, to which my answer is “no”, “Is everything ok?”, to which the answer is “yes”, or “How are you today?”, to which the answer is “fine”. Not understanding the original question clearly causes problems when trying to think of an answer, so I have two options: pick oui, non, or bien at random and hope it’s right, or appear to have been stricken dumb as my brain races trying to think of what to say. Of course I could simply say “I’m sorry I didn’t understand” or something of the like, but deer-in-the-headlights is my brain’s preferred reaction after having been assaulted by a foreign language.
But it has, after all, only been a week. In a few more weeks language will barely be an issue. There will surely be ups and downs this trip (I’m prepared for the 3rd week, the 3rd week is always the hardest for me. I suppose that’s how long it takes for the full force of culture shock to hit me), but I am prepared to face the downs and excited for the ups. I can’t wait to see what the rest of the semester brings!