I had no idea what my level of preparation was for understanding French before my first day in Paris. The first time I noticed that I could what was being said was while listening to the instructions being enumerated at length in a photo booth to get my metro card ID photo. The gently feminine but insistent voice chattered away; “L’expression du visage doit être neutre et la bouche fermée, sans cheveux devant les yeux,” and, “Le visage doit être représenté strictement de face”. Although I knew where my proficiency in French ranked in terms of the NYU French department system, I also knew that the arbitrary credentials of Spoken Contemporary French or Advanced Composition didn’t really give me a sense of my standing in the francophone world.
Overall I’d say that I was more prepared than I thought I was. I can watch the news, I can follow the professor in my class at UP, and I can debate with my uncle about Woody Allen. I can’t understand the mumbling UP students or the people who strike up conversation without any context whatsoever, mais ça arrive à tout le monde, or so I tell myself. What’s more frustrating is being limited in responses. I know that the server thinks I’m from Texas, but I can’t think fast enough in French to tell him I’d be a lot tanner if I were (so it’s my title here). I know that the guy on the street is harassing my roommate as we walk by, but I can’t tell him more than to stop.
Sometimes there are advantages to understanding more than you let on. When solicitors call the apartment for the landlord I love answering in my most obnoxious American voice; “Hellooo! Who is this? I’m soo sorry, I don’t speak any French”. They hang up awfully quickly. I also am in quite the habit of listening in on the metro when the people around me think it’s all going over my head, but really I get to play fly on the wall. That sort of presumed ignorance can allow you to take on roles you wouldn’t be permitted in a place where you speak the language.
As always, there is some miscommunication. Deux baguettes sounds like demi baguette and you’re left with a quarter of the amount of bread you wanted. Procès (trial) slips out instead of processus (procedure), and all of a sudden things take a judicial turn. The hardest decision is whether to attempt to correct the mistake.
It’s ironic that Flaubert hated his native France so much for a student studying abroad here. Paris is a place that’s preserved in the literary and cinematic cannon as a haven for Americans and the French as a people who overall make up for qualities we lack. There are certainly elements about the French that are exotically enviable to us, like their dietary habits. How can they eat all of the things that we class as unhealthy and still be so thin? Animal fats, cheese, carbs, wine, and pastries are all part of the food culture. The etiquette between shopkeepers and customers seems so civil; you always great each other and say thank you afterwards. And as is true of many parts of Europe, college students get a lot of privileges: student discounts on movies, trains, plays, and free museum trips!