I will fast-forward through the days of frustration of having an unfurnished apartment or a way to contact the outside world. It took about a million years to get a phone or an Internet connection. The beauty of storytelling is that I can gloss over the annoying and sometimes painful “stuff” and skip to the funny anecdotes. I will probably just sound like I’m complaining anyway. Don’t get me wrong, Europe has its perks, but I forgot how debilitating it could be not to speak the language. Daily tasks become daunting.
There is another way to look at it: the daily grind, which can become just that—a grind—is never boring when limping along in a foreign language. A random trip to the drug store is a glorious adventure when a mispronounced word resorts to charades. The grocery store becomes a scavenger hunt when you can’t ask an employee for help. Sure, strolling up and down the aisles can get annoying, but I try to think of all the exercise I’m getting. It’s become my new cardio routine.
The hip thing to do in Switzerland is to go grocery shopping in France. It sounds exotic, but the Swiss-French border is so close that it’s literally a twenty-minute drive. The meat is tastier, the croissants more authentic, and the prices are cheaper. Plus, there are certain items that you can only buy in France. Like bathroom cleaner that burns the hair off the inside of your nostrils. The only bummer is that there is a meat allowance of 500 grams per person in the car. So, if you load up your car with an extra friend or two you can really bump up your meat quota. The Swiss are known to bust people for exceeding their beef cut.
A friend took me on one of these lovely grocery-shopping adventures. In Switzerland, all of the packaging is printed in German, French, and Italian. With my modest knowledge of German, I have a fighting chance of getting the products that I want. France was another story. It’s all French, all the time. No German hook-up for me. Still, I was able to decode most of the products. I was feeling smug until I got to the dairy aisle. The cream, whole milk, partially skim milk, and shelf milk (ultra-pasteurized milk that is not refrigerated) were all staring me in the face, daring me to make a selection. I chose one that had the word “demi” in it, hoping it was “partially something” and I wasn’t buying milk straight from an udder.
With the refrigerator stocked, it was time to advance my French vocabulary. I worked out my standard phrases to use as disclaimers before I spoke to anyone:
- Step 1: apologize for my hideous French
- Step 2: try to ask my question
- Step 3: ask if they speak English
Most people know enough English to make it work. Their English typically eclipses my French, which isn’t saying much.
I started taking a French class once a week. We took an avant-garde approach and convinced our instructor to teach us things that we needed to know immediately instead of memorizing lists of verbs and random vocabulary. One of the first things we learned was how to make a rendezvous. We practiced our scripts and made our faux appointments.
A couple of days later, I needed to make an appointment for the pediatrician. Script in hand, I dialed the telephone number. The receptionist—who is kind, but one of the two people in Switzerland who doesn’t speak a lick of English—answered with what I imagine to be the standard office greeting. I launched into my half of the dialogue. Amazingly, she responded with what was typed on my sheet. Feeling confident, I said my next line. Then, I have no idea what she said. She went off script! My long pause and “uhhhhhhhhh” must have tipped her off because she retorted with “the tenth at nine hour thirty.” I enthusiastically said, “Oui! Merci!” A proud moment—my first appointment. My French instructor was proud.
Unfortunately, we had a run of bad luck and I found myself with a sick baby. This time it was on a weekend, and there was no receptionist to practice my dialogue with. I called the médecin de garde (doctor on call) to get in touch with the pediatrician on duty for the weekend. After looking up the French word for vomit, I enlisted my three-step approach for getting things done. The broken conversation, complete with long pauses for me to look up vocabulary words, led me to the Nyon hospital clinic. She was fine and I can laugh about it now, but nothing freaks out a new mom like a vomit-covered French dictionary.
Several months later, I found myself in the doctor’s office again. This time it was just for a routine check-up. But, when scheduling my next rendezvous, the receptionist started to try to tell me something. After several attempts of speaking slower and louder in French, she finally understood that I just didn’t get it. She led me to the waiting room where there was a friendly, young mom waiting with her child. The receptionist asked if she spoke English and the woman did. So she translated that if I needed an appointment for the same day, I was to say “urgence.” If I needed a routine appointment, I was to say “contrôle.” She gave me a code word. Apparently, our conversations were painful for her as well.
I decided that I could take two approaches with the language. Either be upset that I could not express myself or just throw a dictionary in my diaper bag and get out there. I spent too much time and energy in Germany feeling bad that I didn’t speak the language. I’m trying a new approach here. I’m not going to lie—it’s sometimes draining just completing daily tasks. Other times it is pure entertainment.
And for those of you wondering, vomir is vomit in French.
Other columns in the series:
Stories from the Land of Cheese: Buoyed by Mont Blanc
Stories from the Land of Cheese: Old World Charm and Moon Boots
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