Friday, June 13, 2014

even welcomed intruders can be scary

Bordeaux by lamplight. May 2014
Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Three months shy of marking two years here in France, I’ve been noticing a new sentiment creeping into my psyche: some sort of emotion that seems important, but it’s lurked in the shadows just enough to avoid being identified. Tonight, though, as I ambled back to my centre ville apartment with my Tuesday-night-carry-out-special pizza from Dominos, I finally got a clearer view.

So here I am, ready to describe this little perp to the police sketch artist.

For so much of the time since I arrived in France, I’ve been very impatient, wanting desperately to really absorb this language. For me, language isn’t just a binary code of on and off switches. It’s soul. And I’ve wanted desperately to enter into all the places that accessing that soul can take me.

There have been glimmering, hopeful moments along the language-learning way, but it wasn’t until the past six months that something really changed. First, I just didn’t feel so tired anymore after days spent in French. Then, I began to understand without translating. Then, I began to be able to speak more and more spontaneously (on good days, anyway) and even crack the occasional joke.

And now, as I head into summer and mark two years of immersion and language study, I understand why people moving abroad often do two years of language study. My language skills still vary by the day, but mostly they’re solid enough now that they provide a hefty core mass for the snowball that’s rolling down the hill (or up the hill, since that sounds like more of an accomplishment :-) ) and constantly adding new words and expressions to its dictionary. I have a solid enough base now that this language thing is starting to improve exponentially.

But there’s another thing happening, and that’s the thing that surprised me as it stepped into the light tonight: A different kind of fear has replaced my impatient fear that I’d never master this language. You see, French is in me now. The on-off switch I kept trying to switch on is now permanently on. I can no longer turn it off. I can no longer choose not to understand French. Oh, I still don’t understand EVERYTHING, but I pretty much always understand something.

And the scary part is that I’m not in control of this anymore. Really, in truth, I never was; I realized months ago that I couldn’t make myself understand even though I desperately wanted to. I just had to wait until the words worked themselves into me.

But now I can’t make myself not understand.

So the scary part of all that—other than the not-being-in-control part--is that now that French has taken up residence in me, I can’t kick it out (kind of like the way French landlords can’t easily kick out their protected-by-law tenants :-) ). My new tenant won’t ever leave and has already done and will necessarily do more remodeling in me. And I don’t know what the result is going to be. So that’s the scary part. I can’t undo what’s been done during these past two years. And I can’t stave off what French will do as I keep using it and giving it an ever homier home in me.

We’re always changed by new experiences, and any travel or living abroad will always change us. So I’d anticipated that. But somehow this infiltration by this language, that I pursued and welcomed, feels like a deeper change than that wrought by trying new foods and meeting people who are different from me.

Because language is more than the right letters and words and punctuation marks. Because it’s more than words correctly combined and uttered at the right time. It’s soul. And the French soul has infiltrated my English-speaking American soul. And there’s no going back now. Scary or not, on y va! (Let’s go!)

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