In my new home of Toulouse I make piles of mistakes, every day. Each is typically followed by confusion, often humiliation. Wait . . . was what I just said even correct? Did I convey my meaning? Did I inadvertently insult someone? To be honest, each conversation — do they yet qualify as conversations? — begins this way. I manage a phrase, I receive a response, and I try to catch all the words but I miss something because this time it’s “assayez-vous” whereas yesterday it was “trouver un siège”. In my own language, I can easily sidle up to the barista and include with my order, say, some milk on the side. But now of course, I don’t know if they even do that here, let alone how to make such a request. I ask; I get a look that tells me something about what I said is ridiculous; I am left to wonder if I said forty when I meant fourteen. Bloody hell.
Yesterday, I went to one of my new café discoveries. I arrived with an image in my mind, an Americano with an extra shot — rich, dark, hot. My first mistake, and perhaps where the snowball begins its descent: I’ve raised expectations. But I say to the barista Americano and he gives me a pained look and points to an item on the menu, the Allongé I guess? And he explains in a somewhat patronizing tone that this is exactly what an allongé is. S l o w l y and in English. Espresso with water. Duh.
I am not unfamiliar to the world of coffee. I’ve spent endless (wonderful) hours honing my appreciation for it. And yet it feels, in learning a new language in a new culture, that my entire knowledge base, together with my IQ, has gone out the window, so that I can’t even talk about things actually familiar to me. I bumble and stumble around not just my words but my thoughts as well.
By the time I sit down to my coffee with my side of humiliation, I am host to growing feelings of annoyance at the barista, that patronizing air. But then I think of my French class, when we all feel lost, and we complain about the professeur when in fact it’s just frustrating to learn a language, it’s confusing. I don’t want to go down that road today, so I sit at my table, throat tight and tears forming, and just feel the (steadily more familiar) sting of embarrassment.
In the absence of the subtleties of language, it’s so hard to read people, and be read. Is he being a jerk, or is he just having trouble understanding me? I probably come across as indecisive and hesitant, a little dense, as I hunt around for the right word and verb tense, as well as the confidence, to utter the simplest of phrases. A French woman I met recently keen to practice her English stops abruptly after each sentence. It startled me at first, she seemed so rude; but later I thought, you know, she can only say so much, and she is just developing her skill. She very well could be discourteous; but more likely she feels some amount of shyness and insecurity. Already we are such puzzles to one another, let alone ourselves; add language and culture and we have layers and layers of potential misunderstanding.
So, yesterday, a double shot of humiliation. On the one hand, par for the course when it comes to language-learning. On the other, as someone with a lifetime subscription to an inner story of not being good enough, of lacking the Specialized Knowledge that everyone else has access to, it’s an added challenge to stay tuned in and present when I feel like such an outsider.
So. Here we are and this, among other things — such as juicy cross-cultural conundrums and quirks such as men’s footwear and, obviously, cheese — is what we’ll explore. Self-trust and self-love amidst a people known globally for their self-confidence and hauteur. In this environment, how can a sensitive artist well-trained to think of herself as categorically inferior possibly survive? We’ll find out.