Sunday, November 29, 2009

Dinner in French

The English teachers from the high school hosted a dinner in my honor last night. I was impressed by how graciously they accommodated my vegetarianism. No one bothered me about why I didn't eat meat (tact or disinterest, I don't know), and their culinary flair didn't seem to suffer for lack of meat. There were three desserts, which surprised me, and no one seemed to mind how Americanesquely I (and others) tried all three.

There were a couple good moments of conversation -- nice to roll with a crowd who can walk the English Lit walk. There is also something very satisfying about talking about my country to non-Americans, which is my unquestionable authority (whether they know it or not). And when my French sounds the way a Calvin and Hobbes cut & paste ransom note looks, and what's more when I look like an unfashionable 16-year-old, a little credibility feels good.

Somewhere in the haze of the third glass of wine and a chocolate mousse I lost track of the conversation. No no, it was long before then. When I listen to spoken French, I have the impression that I understand. But really I don't. I assuage myself with the rhythm and the cadence that is becoming familiar; then I stop struggling to build paths around the words I don't know with the words I do. Unfortunately, the missing word is so often the punch line to the joke which I won't get, and I tie myself up in knots trying to understand. It's really hard to feel like a functional human when everyone is laughing and you have a perplexed look on your face (and possibly a quivering lower lip). This sort of situation can have complex side effects. For example, when I don't have the opportunity to laugh at normal, appropriate times, it comes out in the wrong places. For example, when someone starts throwing pieces of food at his colleagues.

This extreme gauchery reminds me of when I lived with a host family in Paris during my study abroad. Conversations were pretty excruciating. The up side was that when I returned to the US, my English had undergone a transformation. Before then I wasn't really fluent in English. I mean it's my native tongue and all, but I would stumble all over the place trying to find the right word at the right time. After three months of blaming my awkwardness on language skills, I refused to be awkward in English. And that was that.

I'm eager to see what transformations will become apparent when this year is out.

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