Naturally, when one is living in a foreign country, the first thing
that becomes important (on a survival level) is to learn to speak the
This may sound obvious, but I, for one, never realized until I moved
here just how dependent I was on words.
For one who makes his living with words, this may sound odd, but
nonetheless it’s true.
Actually, upon first arriving here, I was amazed at how well I did
with the few tidbits of French that had remained in my brain since I
took my one and only French course in high school. In fact, it’s odd —
but of all my high school courses, the only one that survived at all was
French. What the heck did they teach us in high school anyhow? I mean,
I can remember most of my teachers — the sadistic PE coaches and
woodshop teachers (woodshop?), the alluring art teacher with the
incredible set of hooters — but, as far as what I was taught, not one
single whit of it remains.
But back to language. As I said earlier, no matter what country
you’re in, one can get by with very little. In fact, mere grunts and
groans go a long way in communicating basic needs. But the moment one
enters into territory that requires any sort of subtlety, it becomes
painfully obvious just how helpless you really are.
Soon, the frustration of not being able to say what you want to
begins to take its toll on you. And rapidly a terrible feeling sets in.
You suddenly feel incredibly, painfully stupid. And the fact that you
know you’re really an intelligent guy, well, that just makes it all the
I’m not sure which is worse, not being able to say what I want to, or
not being able to understand what others are saying around me. Oh, when
I’m in a one-on-one conversation, my friends are usually thoughtful
enough to speak slowly and with the added hand gestures; I’ll get most
of what is being stated. But the minute that the pace starts to pick up,
I’m a goner. And I don’t know if it’s just my imagination or what, but
these French folks speak as if there was no tomorrow. The words just
seem to pour out. That, coupled with the heavy accent (which I’ll get
into in a moment) that is true French, and someone like me is a goner.
After awhile you get really tired. You want to give up, but you
can’t. After all, without language, all your reference points are taken
away. And when that happens — boom — you’re dead! Finished! Kaput!
I find that there’s a strange pattern to all this. Upon waking, I
can’t speak a word of French. In fact, usually, I don’t even know where
I am. But then, after one or two cups of incredibly strong black French
coffee, my brain kicks in, and I’m speaking (and understanding) like a
sonofagun. This goes on until approximately one o’clock. After the
second meal of the day (as I said last week, one cannot escape the
three-meal-a-day thing here), I find I’m getting tired. I can understand
less. After three o’clock, it’s all over. Words have become word salad.
And my communication resorts to head nodding and the grunts and groans
that I’m sure all my friends know is pure fakery.
Now there is yet another element — more subtle still — to this
whole deal. I’ll put it like this. I have become convinced that the
mouths of French people must be shaped completely differently than ours.
Upon watching French people, I see that’s not so. But they use their
mouths completely differently than we do. All the sounds come from the
nose and the back of the throat. Also, the French have a tendency to
speak with a lot of air in their mouths, the result being that many of
the words are followed by a curious habit of blowing out the lips and
expelling air from the mouth.
I have spent entire days in cafes watching French people blow air out
of their mouths. I have tried — in vain — to imitate this sound.
“You must go bon, bah,” my friend Lea advised me. All French
people do it. In fact, she was right. Now bon, bah, means
absolutely nothing (the equivalent might be “ah, well”) but French
people utter this phrase constantly.
So I walk around the town, muttering bon, bah, pursing my lips
out, and blowing air out of my mouth. (To complete the look, there must
be a shrugging of the shoulders). Sometimes I think people are laughing
at me, but a couple of times people have come up and asked me
directions, mistaking me for a local.
After one of these incidents, my ego boosted, I’ll have a seat in one
of those wonderful little cafes where I find myself spending half my
days, order one of the tiny cups of coffee that set my heart racing, and
spend the rest of the afternoon congratulating myself and feeling like I
actually “belong” here.
And with that, I leave you all till next week. For those of you
who’ve been asking, you can still e-mail me at
[email protected] But as of next week this will change to
[email protected], which means that (in answer to your questions), yes, TheTongue.com (the website I, ah, gave birth to) will be back online just as quick as I can get it. It’ll contain a smattering of the old stuff, as well as tons of new things to save you from the usual boredom of the Net. Also, for those of you interested in my books, they will be available on the site.
And with that last little bit of self-hype, I’ll say, bon, bah … see you all next week!