TAPIF: One Year Later

At the beginning of October 2014, I began my year in Compiègne with the Teaching Assistant Program in France. One year ago.

I was supposed to arrive at the end of September, but plane engine issues coupled with airport strikes in Paris (Ah, la joie des grèves françaises!) delayed my arrival in France by 10 hours. However, I arrived. And what a year I had!

When many people describe a profound experience, they say it “changed my life.” This often implies that something (a quality, an idea, a person) was missing before the event took place. My seven months in Compiègne were not life-changing in the sense that I became someone I wasn’t. Rather, I changed because qualities that lay dormant in me were revived and strengthened, and even some faults were diminished. I begin to think that growth is not so much an addition or subtraction as it is a refinement of spirit. If God formed us fearfully and wonderfully, He must have given us everything we need to go through life, and sends people or experiences into our lives accordingly to draw out and refine these different qualities in us.

I’m not going to write a “listicle” for this topic because it’s too simple. Rather, I’ll just share two of the most poignant lessons from my time in France, hopefully in a semi-coherent manner.

I’ll be honest: I’m no expert on children.  I took a babysitting class in middle school, but there were never any kids in my neighborhood to babysit, and my youngest cousins lived far away. I never took a pedagogy class in college. So no, I didn’t really know what I was in for when I accepted a position teaching middle school English. Since I returned home, I’ve gotten a lot of messages from prospective teaching assistants expressing the same fear: “I don’t know what I’m doing. I’ve never taught anyone anything! How am I supposed to teach them for a whole year?” To those assistants who might be reading this post: you don’t need a long resume of teaching experience to do this. You just need to be a resource.

On January 7, 2015, the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were attacked, and many of France’s prominent political cartoonists were killed. The next day, I walked into my weekly conversation club with a lesson all ready. One of my students raised his hand and said, “Miss, can we talk about Charlie Hebdo?” I could see the fear and pain in the eyes of my 12- and 13-year-old students, so I agreed. We spent the whole hour discussing the event (in English) and I said very little. The class carried the conversation all on its own. My only remark was at the end of the lesson: “There are many people in the United States who are thinking of you and who support you.”

Kids are used to adults not taking them seriously. It used to infuriate me when I was younger, and I’m sure it was the same for you. The best thing you can be for any child is a willing listener.

Outside from teaching, I became bolder. I learned bite the bullet of fear and take chances, especially when it came to meeting new friends.

There is a stereotype that the French are not as friendly and open as Americans are. In my experience, this is only partly true. Most of the French people I met were very friendly and open, especially once they found out I could speak French well. But it was not the same smothering friendliness that you often see from Americans. It was a reserved politeness that slowly, organically developed into friendship.

I found out about the Communauté Chrétienne des Étudiants (Catholic community at the local university), a week or two after I arrived. It took me another month to work up the courage to attend a meeting. What sort of community was this? What if they never had an international student before? What if my French wasn’t good enough? And was I even allowed to join because I wasn’t a student?

God makes swift work of our doubts when we trust Him and take a leap of faith. I attended my first CCE Mass and dinner in November, and my only regret was not going sooner! In this community, I found warm, welcoming people from all over France and the world who cared about me and made me feel at home. Some of my best memories of the year come from this community. It was so wonderful to make real French friends!

And of course, I can’t forget the other language assistants I met from all over the world, an eclectic little family of expats that supported one another exploring a new country. And abundant kindness flowed in from my roommates, my coworkers, my students and their families, and even the everyday compiègnois. Most greeted me with a kind bonjour and smile, and many went beyond the call of politeness, inviting me to dinners and parties, or taking me on excursions to tourist sites in the area. It was truly heartbreaking to leave a place that had become like home in less than a year.

Toward the end of my stay, I thanked as many people as I could in person for their welcome and hospitality. One friend responded,  “It was nothing. You were so dynamic and happy that you fit right in.”

Goodness attracts goodness. You don’t have to be an outgoing or extroverted person to find friends in a strange land. You just need to be present, be open, be kind. There will be times of loneliness and homesickness, and that’s OK. But if you have courage enough to reach outside of yourself, you will make a home wherever you go.

Merci à tous qui m’a très bien accueillir pendant mon séjour à Compiègne. And bon courage to all the new language assistants in France this year.

À bientôt!

– Vicky

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Learning to Love the American (My Accent is Weird, Part 2)

Wow! I don’t think I’ve gotten this much online and in-person feedback on a post in a long time. I recently wrote about why I think my American accent is really unattractive, and I got a surprising number of comments, messages, and people coming up to me to talk about it. Though my intention was to write a lighthearted commentary on accents in general, many readers didn’t take it as such. In light of this, I decided to write a follow-up in which I addressed some of my readers’ concerns and tried to make peace with my Yankee accent.

A few months ago, I accompanied my students on a field trip to see an English-language play. All of the actors except one were British- or American-born. At the end of the show, there was a Q-and-A session. They called on me, and I spoke slowly and distinctly so my students could understand the question. One of the actors, who was from Chicago, said, “Wow, we have a bunch of Brits over there!” I laughed, but I was thinking, “Really, dude? You can’t recognize one of your own?”

In talking about my accent, I think of this story because it shows that while I’ve been fleeing my American roots in some respects, I’m still taken aback whenever mistakes me for anything but American. I can’t blame Mr. Chicago for the confusion; my accent is especially weird around my students. Many of the French teachers I work with learned British English in school, not American, so their pronunciation and vocabulary lean heavily toward that side of the Atlantic. Though American English is becoming more widespread thanks to Netflix and the Internet, most French students learn British words before American ones.

As such, I’ve had to adjust my vocabulary and accent so my students understand me: “Please write your homework in your diary. Make sure you revise for your test. Put up your hand. Don’t eat chewing-gum. No mobiles in class.” I’m sure many of you American readers are thinking, “I’d never say it like that!” I’m not even sure if British people talk like this. However, as anyone who has ever studied a language knows, learning from a textbook is very different than having a conversation with a native speaker. I’m sure if any of my French friends flipped through my high school French textbook, they would laugh at the awkwardness of the French sentences I’m expected to learn. I didn’t think I was so proud of American English until I caught myself saying, “Well, in America, we say ______,” on a daily basis.

As much as I love to critique and poke fun at American culture, it’s the one I was raised in. It formed my identity whether I wanted it to or not. It’s a hard-earned privilege to be able to speak a foreign language well in a country that doesn’t put nearly enough emphasis on learning languages (another rant, another time.) I’m still amazed that I can walk into a store and ask the salesperson a question without them immediately switching to English. Every encouraging comment — “Tu parles très bien français!” — feels like a blow to the obnoxious American tourist stereotype. And since busting stereotypes and glass ceilings is one of my favorite hobbies, I feel all the force of the compliment.

With this newfound encouragement, I’ve been trying to appreciate my accent. Even if I don’t like it, some French people may find it endearing, and many can and are willing to listen past it. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the wonderful friends I’ve made in France for being patient as I struggled to form a complicated sentence, for gently correcting my mistakes, and for taking the time to get to know me. I wouldn’t be at the level of French I am today without you. Merci mille fois.

To anyone who also feels insecure when speaking a foreign language: An accent means you’re trying. That’s the most important thing.

À la prochaine!

– Vicky

Thank you to everyone who took the time to comment on my last post! Any other thoughts about accents? Leave me a comment!

My Accent is Weird, Part 1

A few weeks ago, I was in an organic market in town buying ingredients to make a red velvet cake. I had my shopping list with all the items written out in French so I could find them easily. I found everything except the buttermilk. I had written two possible French words for this one, so I confidently went up to the cashier and asked where the buttermilk was.

She stared at me blankly. I tried the other word. No good. As I was about to end the conversation, she signaled one of her coworkers to come over, saying, “Je ne parle pas anglais.” 

Mortified, I quickly paid for the rest of my stuff and left. I haven’t gone back since.

***

Many French people have told me that I speak very good French, and I’m always genuinely flattered by it. When someone makes a concerted effort to not just speak their language, but to speak it well, the French appreciate it.

However, I have never made it through more than a minute of conversation with a new French acquaintance without that person asking, “Where are you from?” or saying, in true matter-of-fact French fashion, “You have an accent.”

As an avid traveler, I’m constantly worried about falling into the “obnoxious American tourist” stereotype. I feel like I always have to prove that I’m trying to speak the language well and learn about the culture and not just ask where the nearest McDonald’s is.

It’s probably all in my head, but I hate the sound of my northeastern U.S. accent trying to finagle its way around all those beautiful French vowels and not-so-beautiful nasal vowels. It’s even worse when I make a grammar-related faux pas.

Last night, I walked home with two French friends from a meeting at the aumônerie. It was very cold and the wind blew my hood right off. What I should have said was, La capuche ne m’aide pas,” or “This hood isn’t helping me.” What I said was, Le capuche ne m’aide pas,” using the masculine instead of the feminine pronoun.

I quickly corrected myself, but one friend caught the error, laughed, and said, “It’s cute. It makes you charming.”

UGH.

I don’t think that’s the right response to a compliment, but instead of feeling flattered, I was frustrated that I had accidentally let my American freak flag fly again. Why? Is it because Americans have a bad reputation as tourists? Or do accents have the same effect as listening to a recording of your own voice?

Since then, I’ve been trying to answer the age-old question: why are foreign accents so attractive? I’m not just talking about people with accents being sexually attractive; admit it, even an accent you find grating or annoying catches your attention at first. The best answer I can come up with is that it’s an immediate conversation starter. Humans are curious beings. When someone speaks differently than you, you automatically ask yourself, “How did this person learn to speak like that? Where are they from? What’s their story?” Plus, you avoid the awkward moment of thinking of a conversation topic, because it’s ringing in your ears.

So if my American accent speaking French is “cute” and “charming,” why do I resent it so much? Perhaps it’s because I’m trying to assimilate as much as possible into the French culture, and my accent is one thing that immediately gives me away as not French. So much of our identity is engrained in the organs that allow us to speak, including the language centers of the brain. Even if I lived in France for the next 40 years and learned to speak perfect French, I might never lose that certain American something in my voice that the French would be sure to notice. Sometimes I feel like people hear my accent and not the words I’m speaking, or they see an American rather than me, Vicky.

It’s true that it takes some getting used to when you’re not familiar with a regional accent. But next time you meet someone with a different accent than you, I’d encourage you to listen carefully to their words, not just hear their voice. An accent is just a small part of a person’s identity. Differences should be celebrated, not fetishized.

Oh yeah, for the record, a sexy accent doesn’t necessarily indicate that this person is boyfriend/girlfriend material.

Good. Glad that message rang loud and clear.

À bientôt!

– Vicky

Question: Why do you think people find different accents attractive? Share your thoughts in the comments below!