This morning I experienced a small victory. A victory over my own anxiety. I had a conversation with a French person, in French, on the telephone – and we understood each other, or so I believe.
My parent’s generation grew up without any contact with foreign cultures because the Nazi regime didn’t allow any exposure to democratic influences. Foreign languages were only taught after having been safely extinct for a couple of centuries. While my Grandfather, a teacher for classical languages, also spoke several languages still in active use, his son, my father, was forbidden to even listen to musical broadcasts on the radio that might be considered subversive, let alone study dangerous vocabulary.
Thus my parents strongly supported their children’s language education. Even without our consent on occasion. My little brother was enrolled in a French kindergarten when the opportunity arose and simply had to cope. He was fluent in less than five months. His older sisters weren’t as lucky and had to learn foreign languages in the German school system. I wasn’t a poor student per se, but a lazy one. The academic emphasis on grammar and the inevitable recital of irregular verbs bored me into a comatose state and I didn’t achieve to my potential, as noted by both my English and French teachers. To improve my French skills, my parents send me to a language school for a month during summer break.
Foreign students were boarded with families and attended classes during the mornings. My ‘family’ was a somewhat aloof widow, deaf in one ear and a horrible cook. The school was just as boring as it was at home, so I soon phased out attending classes, going to the beach instead. This was, after all, Nice on the Côte d’Azur and I was seventeen! I learned a lot of French from ma clique, my circle of friends, most of them French and Vietnamese kids, while we hung out, going to the movies and dancing the night away at nightclubs, but my grammatical condition didn’t improve. My poor dad had wasted his money.
Fast forward through the last 36 years of my life, during which the necessity of communicating in yet another foreign language, English, all but erased what little French I had absorbed in my youth, just to find myself actually living in France. Not only that, but I’m supposed to be the one to open her mouth and allow, somehow, miraculously, French words to emerge.
This morning I tested this theory by placing a call to the Préfecture de la Charente-Maritime, a federal administrative office, to request an appointment to apply for my American husband’s residency card, a Carte de Séjour. I don’t need one, because I’m a German citizen and as such allowed to live in France like a citizen. I prepared myself, as well as one can rehearse a live phone call, by writing out questions ahead of time. But in a phone call, speaking is often less problematic, than the comprehension of the spoken word. French people naturally compose very long, convoluted sentences, which include utterly meaningless, cluttering phrases. And they have developed certain ritualistic expressions, they deem necessary for a polite business conversation. Frenchies are also genetically incapable of speaking at a reasonably moderate tempo. In a nutshell, I’m dead scared of phone calls.
What a triumphal feeling to succeed, despite my great apprehension! We will either see a counselor at the appointed time at the Préfecture in La Rochelle in April, bringing originals and copies of all requested documents – or Barry will be deported then. Minor details …