"Je cherche une feuille de brik, s'il vous plaît," I politely asked the supermarket cashier.
She looked at me for a second, then beckoned for me to follow her. I obliged, and only when she led me to the refrigerated section of the store did I realize that I'd made a big mistake.
You should have seen her face when I nervously backed away and pointed towards the front of the shop, where the lighters – les briquets – stood neatly in a color-coordinated row behind the cash register.
Now, I'm telling you this mortifying story for a good reason. I had already been living in France for several months when I mixed up feuille de brik (a thin North African pastry dough) and briquet. Language learning is a lifetime affair, and mistakes are par for the course, even when we consider ourselves "fluent." I may still be thinking about this moment years later, but I'm sure the lovely woman in the market forgot all about it seconds after I left. We are our own harshest critics!
So, in this blog, I thought I would share with you all my journey with French, and how I got to where I am now – living, working, loving, learning, and embarrassing myself in France every day.
I began my love affair with the language at age 7. When I was in second grade, to be exact. French was oddly the only language offered in my public elementary school in the affluent suburbs outside of Philly, much to my dad's disappointment and my eventual delight. (He wanted me to learn Latin.) I still have the fondest memories of the French Festival, where everyone was assigned a different job: at the boulangerie, poissonnerie, confiserie, librairie, and more. We all wore different colored berets and painted on very stereotypical but also kind of adorable "French mustaches." Exotic snacks included langue de chat cookies, sparkling Orangina sodas, and a dentist's best friend, Carambar candies. We also had to dress up as a well-known French personnage and present ourselves to the class. For some inexplicable reason, I chose Moulin Rouge can-can dancer Jane Avril. Cynwyd Elementary School gave me my first introduction to French culture, and my passion only grew from that moment on.
A trip to Paris when I was 11, with my wonderful, globetrotting aunt and our family, only cemented my obsession with French. Hot crêpes au sucre from street vendors, awe-inspiring museums, an extremely rare steak, a few awkward "Bonjours" and "Mercis," my first sip of Champagne (which I described as tasting like "fizzy feet"), luxurious hotels that my pre-teen bratty self can't even remember... it was definitely a special week.
When I went back to the French capital almost ten years later, at times I still felt that same reticence when it came to speaking with natives... But at that point, I had been taking French classes throughout my schooling.
Middle school, where we learned about former colonies like Haïti from Monsieur Taylor and traveled to Quebec to "practice" speaking French. Then high school, where I started to realize that this really was my thing. I excelled at a few national concours, won the French award senior year, and just generally was the annoying student who always volunteered to read aloud in class. I remember loving to watch movies and videos like Bref, Kirikou et la Sorcière and Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis – just generally high culture.
I was good at French, and I wanted to keep chasing that feeling of superiority. (Sorry, just being honest.) So, I decided to major in it in college at Northwestern. My French classes were some of the best moments of my university experience. Writing a short story about a Michelin-starred chef in Advanced Writing; reading Aimé Césaire, Véronique Tadjo, Alain Mabanckou and Baudelaire in Modern Literature and French Poetry; listening to Stromae, Grand Corps Malade and Gaël Faye in Phonetics. For my senior seminar, I wrote a prize-winning essay about pornography based on Michel Houellebecq's Les particules élémentaires. I think my "aha" moment was when I was able to read and discuss a book about sexual deviants and quantum physics in French. Well, to the best of my ability...
But my experience studying abroad in my junior year really cemented my desire to live in France one day -- and allowed me to make leaps and bounds with my French. First, a six-week program in the south of France that my mom took out a special loan just to afford. Those six weeks in Arles with amazing friends and (host) family, and stunning Provençal views and food were some of the best weeks of my life (check out my blogs if interested). I learned so much new vocabulary that you simply can't get from a textbook. Highlights include me being unable to comprehend my host mom when she said "Tu peux me tutoyer !" during our first few moments together, and a random old man teaching us that "Ça bouge !" ("It's moving!") means the party is bumpin'.
After those six weeks, I felt confident in my French (or at least, I was actually able to follow a whole conversation and join in at the right time). Then, I headed to Paris where I would live for four months, interning at a French food TV show called Très très bon, thanks to IFE Paris. And I didn't feel quite so confident anymore... Going from a fun, easy, sunny summer in Provence to a metro-boulot-dodo in the French capital (even though I was and am so, so grateful to have had this one-of-a-kind experience) was kind of a shock. I retreated back into my shyness, especially amongst my effortlessly cool journalist coworkers, and barely spoke unless spoken to at work. I did build some great friendships and loved my time in Paris, though, and eventually the ease flowed back into my step and my speech. I shared a homemade pumpkin pie with the office, finally cracked a joke with my deskmate after two months, cold-called Parisians for my 50-page French research paper, and stood up in front of everyone to make a short (and very red-faced) thank-you speech at the end of the internship. I was extremely proud of myself, despite all the self-doubt and loneliness, and from then on I knew that I would do whatever it took to move back to France after university.
It turned out that the easiest way to do that (barring finding a handsome French man... that would come later) was teaching English. So, I applied for and won a Fulbright grant to become one of just 10 English Teaching Assistants in France in 2019-20. I was placed in a high school in Mulhouse, a town in Alsace. The program was supposed to last for seven months, but it's been four years and I'm still here, after two years as an assistant and two as a lectrice, or English teacher in a French university.
Throughout all of the messy beaurocracy and red tape, the falling in love, the phone calls with banks and dentists, the interactions with cashiers, and the laughter with new and old friends, somehow I found that French (and an Alsatian accent, and the words "mec" and "meuf") had started to come as easy as English. To my sister's chagrin, I even mix up English phrases now, just too used to the way I would normally say something in French. I am proud of my accent (even though apparently I will never pronounce "un moment" correctly), and I don't mind messing up or asking someone to repeat themselves, thus revealing my "otherness." After all, it's my second language and as long as I'm understood, that's really what counts. (And I still make plenty of mistakes, including requesting to order "japonois" takeout instead of "japonais," which some people will never let me live down. And that's okay!).
I'm not exactly sure what the future holds, but as for now I'll likely be going to cooking school and working in a restaurant in Mulhouse, all in French, all of which I don't think ten-year-old Áine at the French Festival ever could have imagined.
Or perhaps she did, and that's why I am where I am today.
Have you ever learned a second language? How has your experience been?
Thanks for reading! Bisous <3