Wednesday, October 10, 2012

danger: ‘tis the season of riptides

This morning a very nice technician from France Telecom came to open up the phone line for my new French studio apartment, a critical step toward finally gaining internet access here at home. I’m glad he came this week instead of last week because last week I was in whatever stage it is of the language learning process that makes you feel like you’re drowning anytime someone addresses you in the language you’re learning. The kind of drowning where you stop trying to remember how to swim and just feel panicked as you sink.

This stage took me a little by surprise. After two heady weeks of being amazed at how much I could actually understand and communicate here (the bar was really low, so imagine the way a 3-year-old communicates: far from correct but finally using real words and more intelligible than her 2-year-old self—I could only hope my mistakes were as cute as those of your favorite toddler!), I suddenly felt like I couldn’t understand anything—or at least anything spoken at normal speed by anyone with a French accent (i.e. REAL French versus the slow, sometimes-stuttering version spoken by the various stripes of non-francophones I’m often around).

I entered week #4 here fully prepared to drown for the next three months until I reach that magical point I’ve been hearing about: the point where the French fairy godmother waves her magic French-English dictionary, dropping French dust all over your head, and suddenly everything (or at least a whole lot of things) makes sense. I wasn’t relishing the drowning, but in my best moments I was prepared to push through and stay alive somehow (drift wood, anyone? Sea turtles willing to give me a ride?). It helped my resolve to get a little extra sleep this weekend. Sleep is almost as magical as fairy godmother dust.

Happily, so far this week, I’m instead floating again—not swimming yet, but not drowning either. So when Monsieur France Telecom Technician and I had an entire conversation in French, I think (perhaps wishful thinking) I understood the most crucial points: the line won’t be operational for two more days, and it’s the telephone company I’m using for service who will give me the phone number for my landline. He said a few other things in those sentences, but I’m just telling myself those things weren’t critical. The past two days have held other similar moments of mostly understanding. I’m still spelling R-E-L-I-E-F the English way, but I once again have hope I’ll eventually think it in French.

But I can’t go through the drowning moments without having my already strong sympathy magnified for non-English-speaking immigrants to the United States. Again and again here, I’m struck by the tables that have been turned. It’s as though when we read through the play the first time, I played one character. Then, just to mix things up, the director told my fellow actor and me to trade roles. Like any good actors, we’ve been expected to completely identify with whichever character is ours for that reading.

In Nashville, I donated household goods to a free garage sale for international students arriving for grad school at Vanderbilt University and needing to furnish their new homes. Here, I’m the international student who is the grateful recipient of other people’s cast-off and loaned items.

In Nashville, I assisted with English classes for Somali Bantu refugees, guided the occasional non-anglophone Starbucks customer through an order, and tried to speak slowly in conversations with new international friends whose English was so much better than my French is now. Here, I’m the one stumbling through sentences and replying to kind (or not-so-kind, I’m really not sure) statements with the glassy eyes and hesitant nod of one who is trying to understand but clearly has no idea what the person has just said.

I’ve felt like I’m drowning despite having a whole lot of preparation for the deep end: I arrived here with a base of French from three years of study in high school and college; I’m educated and know how to study and learn; I’m a words person, so I get the different roles different words play in languages; the language I’m learning operates on reasonably similar terms to my native language, shares an alphabet, and even shares quite a lot of words; transitioning between cultures is quite easy for me; I’m in a city where there are a lot of people (almost too many!) who speak my native language; and I’ve had tons of assistance from friends of friends from my home country or from other English-speaking countries. All that, and I’ve still felt like I’m drowning in the French ocean.

If you’ve never drowned, it can be very hard to imagine what it feels like. You might even find yourself hearing of the latest drowning and be thinking, “Well, why didn’t you just start swimming?” “Why didn’t you call for help?” “Why did you go out in that water in the first place?” If you’ve never drowned, you might not realize that panic can make your limbs forget they know anything about swimming if they ever knew how to swim in the first place, that no one was paying attention to the call for help, and that sometimes the scary, unknown waters are still better than the shore.

Immigrants sometimes get a very bad rap in the U.S. (and in lots of other places, too). Especially around the issue of whether they’re learning our language or not. And sometimes I think it’s just helpful to trade roles for a little while—either in reality or in your imagination—to try to understand how hard language learning is. I’ve met people in English classes in the States who never got to go to school in their home country and never learned to write or read in their own language, so now they’re not only trying to learn English, they’re also learning how to read and write and hold a pencil for the first time in their lives. And I think I’ve felt like I’m drowning? Sheesh. It’s amazing so many of those new to our country ever manage what English they do learn.

I’m fully expecting to have other weeks of drowning, but I’m hopeful the water-pruned skin and tired lungs will be worth it a few months from now when my French is good enough to help some other newcomer understand what Monsieur France Telecom Technician is saying. ALL of what he’s saying. And this week, I’m immensely grateful for a rest from the drowning.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

real life house-hunters international - no fluffy reality tv here

Aix Cathedral - credit: 
First episode: Oh So Naive
Viewers meet freelance writer Kami Rice who is amazed to have the unexpected opportunity to study French for the fall semester in beautiful Aix-en-Provence, France. In late June, from the comfort of her happy apartment in Music City, USA, she begins her housing search online. She first thinks she can get off easy by renting from a friend's landlords, but the location of their house isn't going to provide the immersion experience Kami is searching for as she embarks on the quest to move beyond elementary level French and to write from within this old, inspired city in southern France. She turns down that first place in early July after thinking she has found the "perfect" French studio apartment in the large 18th century home of an artist. In email exchanges--with lots of Google Translate assistance for Kami--the painter says the studio is available. Within hours, Kami replies that she wants to rent it. [close-up of happy, excited, hopeful and NAIVE Kami]

Episode recap: Dejection
It's been three weeks, and Kami still hasn't heard back from the painter. She doesn't know how business works in France, but she doesn't think the deal has been sealed yet. Now in the midst of packing up her happy Nashville apartment, she's getting worried. She finally asks a friend to help her call the painter. The painter doesn't know who Kami is. The studio is no longer available. Thus Kami is launched into weeks of Google Translated emails trying to find housing. Her French is not good enough for making phone calls. The only replies she receives are from landlords whose places are already rented. Watch this episode online for all of the dreadful ups and downs and hours and hours and hours of behind-the-scenes footage of Kami viewing what seemed like every apartment available in the city of Aix. All the cute places she saw online back in early July seem to have been replaced by dreary, tiny, ugly, windowless compartments that are completely uninspiring for even the most uninspired writer. The one happy point in this episode came when generous donors told Kami they want to cover tuition for a second semester of French classes. She can stay in Aix until June! But this also ups the ante on housing.

Episode recap: Dead Ends
On the ground in Aix! Kami is sure her housing search will turn a corner now that she can view apartments in person. Along the way she has learned cultural tidbits such as that the French prefer to do business in person or on the phone. Email is not their strong suit. She tries to fight back against dejection by viewing all of the dead ends as a cross-cultural exercise that any true expat/world traveler must go through eventually. This only helps a little. A new French friend calls lists of apartments for Kami, to schedule appointments, but only manages to schedule two appointments after leaving many messages, encountering full voicemail boxes, and finding that many places have already been rented. French housing is reported to be always difficult. On top of that, again and again, Kami hears that housing in Aix is especially tight this year, so tight it's made the news. 40,000 students descend on the city this time of year. Kami's student visa and poor French are no match for them.

Episode recap: In the Heart of Centre Ville
46.5 hours after arriving in France, Kami steps inside her first available apartment for a viewing. A friend of a friend has come with her to translate with the landlord. Kami is already taken by the location deep in the downtown/center of old-town Aix near the ancient cathedral. Despite all of the "very old" surrounding the studio, the inside is refreshingingly new. Very new. Completely redone. No one has ever slept on the futon before. The kitchen and bathroom are beautiful - especially compared to the awful pictures Kami has seen again and again. The space is small but lit up beautifully by two large windows that welcome sun from late morning until late afternoon. The landlord says 27 people have viewed the apartment!!! [sped-up shot of many people entering and walking through the apartment one after the other] However, he's particular about who he rents to. He wants someone who will take care of all the newness. He's only considering 3 of the prospective tenants. Kami makes the cut.

Episode recap: Waiting
Kami and her helpful new friends call the landlord the next morning to tell him she would like to rent the place. The day goes by and he doesn't call back. The friends say that the French typically keep their work and personal lives separate, so if the landlord doesn't call back by supper time, most likeky he's chosen someone else because he won't call once family time begins. Kami views another apartment. It's fine but not as nice, and the friend who goes with her is concerned about the poor security of a ground-floor window with no bars on it. Kami then wanders the centre ville the rest of the afternoon/early evening, her first chance to explore without being on a mission to get somewhere. She falls in love with it a little more. She walks down the street near the cathedral to check out the first apartment's location again. But she's no longer hopeful it will ever be hers. As the sun sets, she wanders into a cafe to order her first French coffee on her own. [insert funny clips of Kami trying to order a vanilla latte and ending up with cinnamon hot chocolate instead] She checks her borrowed cell phone for the time. What? A missed call from 7 minutes ago? The landlord's number?! She calls him back. He tells her something in French. She apologizes that she doesn't understand. Can she have her friends call him, she asks? He switches to broken English and asks her to bring documents to a meeting with him tomorrow. She thinks she understands the documents he's asking for. She finishes her hot chocolate and stops off at the ATM to collect the first round of cash for the deposit, in case he wants it now - she's hopeful but senses that this apartment is not a certainty for her yet.

Episode recap: Patience
As Kami walks through "old-town Aix" today to meet the landlord, she discovers that the weekend flower and veg/fruit market is just minutes from her hoped-for new home in the middle of the narrow labyrinthine streets of the old city. "THIS is just where I've hoped to live," she sighs in the voiceover. She arrives at Number 16 and begins chatting with the landlord in a mix of English and French while waiting for her friends to arrive to help translate the fine details. The landlord drops the news that she is not the only candidate for the apartment. [shot of Kami's face falling] The number of renters he's considering is down from 3 to 2: Kami, who is looking for a 9-month lease. And a student who wants to rent the place for 3 years. [Audience groans. Of course the student will win. What landlord wants a 9-month renter over a 3-year one. But wait...] Then he tells her that her desire to pay cash makes her competitive against the 3-year person. [Take that, you mystery competitor.] He also likes her personality and seems intrigued by her writing work. [Wannabe writers sometimes take pity on real the time Kami was pulled over by a cop who had been a creative writing major.] He seems to want her to have the apartment but has to check over everyone's paperwork. He says to bring financial records for Kami and the friends who have agreed to serve as her guarantors (very common requirement in France) to his office on Monday. On Wednesday, he will call to say "oui" or "non."

And that, folks, is where we stand. Plenty of real-life suspense going on here. Will the next episode be "Moving In" or "Resuming the Search" or "Giving Up and Returning to the U.S."? Stay tuned to find out.