Thursday, July 10, 2008

Learning my lines

I've been in a training class the past two days to learn about the software that I'll be using for my new project. As boring, boring, boring a blog subject as there ever was, but before you click away, never fear, I'm going somewhere with this.

This morning I arrived late, and with no excuse since I live exactly five minutes away by foot. In the rush to get checked in at the welcome desk before sneaking into class, I wound up with the wrong kind of visitor's badge, with no account for the cafeteria. Naturally, I didn't realize this until I got to the front of the line at lunch.

Since the only perks of a training class are free food and getting out of work at five o'clock, this was, in my eyes, a serious problem. Yet with a little bit of inquiry and troubleshooting and I managed to exchange the badge, and as I finally sat down at a table with my tray loaded up with a copious free lunch, I realized something. I even admitted it to my fellow trainees.

The old me would have paid for lunch with a credit card or discreetly disappeared outside to buy a sandwich rather than face explaining the situation to someone who might help. Four or five years ago, solving the problem would have been too daunting for me. I was too unsure of myself and my language skills, and simply too timid.

Learning to function in a different culture takes more than just mastering the language. You must also learn a whole new script for day-to-day life. Everyday interactions are suddenly uncharted territory, and meeting your neighbor in the elevator, picking up a package at the post office, asking the building super for help with a repair are all impossibly complicated because you don't know your lines.

When I moved to Paris my French was decent enough to survive, and even to go on job interviews. Yet when anything out of the ordinary hit, I ran for help from my husband or my in-laws. Part of it is me. I've always been a wimp about contacting customer service or dealing with administrative hassles, even in the US. But a bigger part of it was my fear of jumping into the deep end of language comprehension and seeing if I could swim.

Now that fear is almost gone. I don't know if it slowly disappeared over five years or, as I suspect, swiftly evaporated when the responsibility of taking care of a baby gave me more courage to fend for myself. Maybe it was the years of watching my husband do it. Or maybe it was the painful experience at six weeks' pregnant of being forced to call, and call, and call maternity wards before finding one both with room to admit me and that deigned to answer the phone.

Part of it was learning the back and forth required, the je vous appelle pour un renseignement, j'ai un petit souci (I'm calling you for some information, I have a small problem), and the general and specific vocabulary needed for each task. A bigger part of it was finding the nerve to improvise and to use my petit accent as carte blanche to make it up as I went along. I only have to say two words for anyone here to know that I'm an American. From there, all I have to do is speak clearly, slowly, and distinctly and hope they will play along.

Today it worked well, for not only did I get my free lunch, but I also (almost) got a problem with my health insurance straightened out. French customer service is one rigorous linguistic training ground, so I'm feeling pretty proud of myself, indeed.

1 comment:

caramama said...

That is truly awesome! Way to go!

I agree that something about having a child changes a person's personality some. Not that I ever had a problem speaking out, but I will even more so now when it might involve my child. Of course, it's much easier in your own language, so you get double kuddos!