AFTER SEVEN MONTHS in France and almost two years abroad, it is time I wrote a love letter to a country, a language, and a continent.
I have now had two separate and completely different experiences abroad. The first time was in a familiar academic environment in a language I speak and a collection of intelligent and international friends. It was natural, I knew what to expect, and I could handle myself as me – in English.
Then I came to France and jumped into a place where I wasn’t fluent in the language, and was actively trying to learn it. I have loved French for a long time and wanted to make a firm commitment to it by moving here.
It has been the most rewarding educational experience of my life.
During these 7 months I have learned more about French and English than ever before. I have also learned what it is like to forget my own language as you start to learn another. This kind of education is completely new to me. After about 3 months in France I started having trouble recalling English words. This is common among other native English speakers I have met here as well. I have been exposed to French intensely since the day I arrived, and have probably spoken the language *almost* every day since September 27th, 2013 (let’s all take a moment here- that’s 203 days!).
Conversations about French grammar occupy my time now and sincerely interest me. I have become seriously nerdy about understanding the differences and similarities between English and French vocabulary and grammar. I think I have become obsessed with learning and understanding this language. But in an effort to do what? Become bilingual.
Now, this bilingual term needs to be discussed. Am I bilingual after 7 months in France? Absolutely not. I had several people tell me that in 7 months it would be possible to become bilingual. This term is obviously subjective. I had no idea what to expect from 7 months, but becoming bilingual, I have now realized, will be a goal I work on for probably the rest of my life, especially if I plan to live in the English speaking world while I do it (more on that in a second). I am forever jealous of people who went to French immersion or who have French parents or who are French and learned English young and speak it perfectly. Vous avez de la chance.
Learning a new language as an adult is incredible work and bilingualism is something that takes years and perhaps a lifetime of immersion to achieve. It certainly depends on what kind of bilingualism you want, and as a perfectionist, I want to get as close as possible. I have improved immensely in my time here, and the learning has definitely gone in different waves.
During the first three months, I would say the reality of how little I knew hit me, and I was constantly asking: How do you say that? What does that mean? And asking my French roommates to explain expressions they were using. Once you become comfortable identifying expressions, it becomes easier to understand what is being said around you. Learning French is difficult because expressions can often be translated literally based on your previous knowledge of words, but together they mean something completely different. I now often find myself thinking about English expressions and how they must seem to someone trying to learn the language. My empathy for language learning has definitely increased.
In the following three months I noticed an improvement in my oral comprehension and ease of speaking to people my own age. We had new roommates move in from Italy, Germany and Spain, which made the common language in our house French (there are 11 of us living here). I feel extremely proud to say that I have friends in French; meaning our friendship is based in French and not in English, and this is completely new to me and feels like a huge accomplishment.
At the moment I feel that I understand better than I speak, and what I need to do now is learn the more complicated verb tenses and keep learning vocabulary and expressions. I have come a long way but there are more steps to be taken. The old saying ‘practice makes perfect’ holds true in this case. Unfortunately, I am about to leave this country and go back to a very English-speaking world.
At the end of my time in London and at LSE, I was ready to go. I think you are normally ready for something new when you have finished an academic accomplishment. Especially when you feel done with your studies and ready to jump into the ‘real world’.
Right now, in France, I feel very differently. I do not feel ready to come back to the English-speaking world. I am not done with this language, and I am scared not to hear it and speak it every day. I know it will be real work to keep up with studying French on the side of whatever is next for me at home. And I do not want to lose all the progress I have made. I know it’s not impossible, but I am worried.
As I leave this continent, I must say a few parting words of adoration. Europe: what a place. An incredible lifestyle is available here if you like to travel. Things are cheap and there are so many amazing places to visit. Coming from a huge country that I never get the chance to see, this has been fun and I have made the most of it. In March I flew to Rome for 36 euros, the equivalent of $55 Canadian dollars. Even flying from Waterloo to Ottawa costs more than twice that much. I know from the environmental perspective of things, this is not good news. Cheap air travel is Europe is not helping the problem (for the record I took the train all the way home– less carbon intensive), but it is fun to take advantage of sometimes.
Even the train network is amazing and makes travelling this way possible. I don’t think I would ever want or need a car in Europe; it is just too easy and stress-free to use public transportation. I am seriously going to miss the ease of movement when I come home. Even thinking about the Go Train hours between Kitchener and Toronto, or how expensive it is to fly east or west from where I live, frustrates me. Soon I am going back to this reality and I will have no more weekend trips to Madrid, Paris or London available at my fingertips.
The ease of changing where you live as a European is also pretty incredible. A summer in Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, England or Germany – all is possible with European Citizenship. Quelle style de vie. I am lucky to be from an amazing country with endless diversity both culturally and naturally, but the different languages and cultures available to those with this magic European passport are something else. I am going to miss the diversity of people I interact with on a daily basis.
Our house at the moment is like an Auberge Espanol (watch the movie if you haven’t seen it). Before Christmas break we had: 1 Canadian, 3 Brits, 1 Mexican, and 5 French and since February we’ve had: 1 Canadian, 2 Brits, 1 Italian, 1 Spanish, 1 German and 5 French. I am so thankful that I decided to move out of my studio apartment in September and that I found this place: the one and only Artemisia. My experience was completely shaped by my housemates and I am so lucky to have met all of them.
To Zena, Ellyse, Theo, Paul, Camille, Ginita, Gricel, Antoine, Julia, Cecilia, Carmen, Paul, David and Gauthier: THANK YOU GUYS! Merci beaucoup/Gracias/Grazie/Danke. À vous tous : Dans l’avenir, n’hésitez pas à me rendre une visite au Canada, ou n’importe où que je sois. Chez moi est toujours chez vous. Bises infinies.
And finally, to Europe and France:
Merci pour tout ce que vous m’avez offert pendant une année et sept mois. Je vais me souvenir l’expérience tendrement. Merci pour l’occasion d’apprendre une nouvelle langue et pour l’expérience de vivre dans un nouveau pays. La France est belle, variée et inspirante et je suis reconnaissante de mon temps ici. Je suis triste de partir et j’espère qu’un jour j’aurai la chance de revenir. J’adore cette langue et il y a plus à apprendre. J’espère à très bientôt.
Photo by Julia Rose Photography