I love Reid’s quote about watchful silence because that is the best way I can describe my actions in Paris thus far. I have studied French for a few years and can stumble along, using my hands to help form my words. I find that, for the most part, I communicate effectively, getting that cup of milk or the bill without too much anxiety. However, the complicated part arises when someone asks me a question and I have to listen and comprehend (and answer!!!).
Earlier this week, I was making dinner in the communal kitchen of my residence hall. I live at one of the buildings in Cite Universitaire, which houses students from all over the world studying in Paris. One of my neighbors was sipping his coffee and reading on his laptop when I entered, and I muttered a swift Bonsoir! and began to cook. All was well. And then he said something. Excusez-moi? I asked, already feeling the heat on my cheeks. I said I like your shoes! He replied in English, thus resulting in my relief and embarrassment.
I hate when someone switches to English when I am talking to them. I know it is nothing personal, that they probably want to practice their English, that they can tell I am struggling with French and want to make it easier for me. But I can’t help but feel like a failure. Here I am, living in French, immersed in the language and new culture, and I can’t even squeeze out a few sentences without choking.s
De Botton’s chapter, “On the Exotic,” resonates with me in the sense of wonder I experience in Paris, particularly when it comes to food. Some context: I’ve been reading A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway, and one of the things I’ve noticed is the way he discusses his meals. Potatoes, bread, beer, coffee– nothing special, right? But somehow, the words make them special. Dragging a piece of baguette through a puddle of olive oil, and vinegar, soaking a piece of potato in a garlic sauce, tipping back a cold and frothy beer down a dry throat. These descriptions have made me pay special attention to food and the way Parisians eat, a way of life I wish I could find at home like de Botton’s column-less buildings.
In my desire to eat the Parisian way (i.e. take long lunches, sit and sip a cafe creme while reading a book, avoiding eating on the go at all costs so that I can savor each bite, even if it is just a piece torn off my baguette), my fear of speaking the French language has been confronted. I wait in line at the boulangerie for a Parisian breakfast– orange juice, coffee, and a croissant– practicing my sentence, Est-ce que j’ai le petit-dejeuner, s’il vous plait? If they say anything other than the price, I wait wide-eyes, processing, relying on other cues to help me figure it out. If they’re pointing to the cafe I know they’re asking about sugar. If they are half-turned, I can quickly locate the microwave behind them and assume they are asking if I want my croissant warmed.
These cues have become lifesavers, preventing me from being outed as an “other,” something I for some reason do not want to be defined as, and keep me in conversation with my Parisian neighbors. For this reason, I am an observer above all us, constantly looking and taking in. As I keep learning French and gradually improve, I wonder if I’ll ever abandon this watchful silence technique and instead look at my phone like all the French-speakers who only rely on words to get around. On one hand, I’d like to get to that level. On the other, watchful silence has helped me open my eyes in this city so I don’t miss out on things. I’d hate to lose it.