This past week concluded my fourth week in Paris, and after nearly a month of adjusting to life abroad, I can confidently say that I have suffered no more than 28 hours without eating a baguette and have only gone the wrong direction on the metro twice. Call me Parisian.
In all seriousness, the greatest challenge of navigating the city has had far less to do with Google Maps than with the newfound loss of my awareness of my surroundings. Language is taken for granted until its familiarity, that ability to give you security, confidence, and understanding, vanishes. My linguistic insecurity reveals itself daily. Is the woman yelling on the metro trying to tell me something important, or perhaps just fussing at her son on the phone? Did the waiter just inform me that I ordered a 50 euro bottle of wine instead of the five euro glass? Passivity ceases to be an option when I am a foreigner. Everyday interactions get more complex, and I am forced to be an active participant in my environment, yet it is this necessity to submerge myself in French culture that allows me to understand and appreciate it.
Listening to the couple chatting beside me at a cafe, exchanging stories with my host mother, or simply taking in everyday scenes of Parisian life provides ample opportunity to celebrate progress in my French studies and actively gage my comprehension. It is an interesting balance of confusion, excitement, and growth that is now becoming my norm, and as my French improves these everyday confrontations with the language become a source of intrigue and anticipation.
I have discovered firsthand that the language of love can sound irresistibly seductive, or like a dreadful attempt at communication whilst gargling. While I gravitate towards the latter of the two (though with less frequency than in August), I have come to appreciate the art of well spoken French, thus attending a production of Molière’s L’Ecole des femmes served as a delightful manifestation of the beauties of Classical French verse in a seventeenth-century comedy.
As a class, my fellow students and I read a Molière theatrical masterpiece, a play which is both social commentary on French society of the 17th century and an extraordinary demonstration of the refinement of the language. Following a discussion of L’Ecole des femmes, we explored the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise, the hauntingly gothic final resting place of Molière and scores of other cultural, artistic, and historical icons. Dusk was beginning her descent over the sky, early impressions of autumn hung in the air, and leaves eerily rustled as we mulled over literature amongst the tombs, in typical Sewanee fashion.
The gothic romanticizing came to an end with a hop on the metro, and soon we were at the Théâtre de la Tempête near the château de Vincennes for an evening of Molière. Hearing the same words that I myself had struggled to pronounce effortlessly flow from the actors’ lips elevated my appreciation for L’Ecole des femmes. There was a musical quality to the delivery, and I realized “Oh, that is how French verse is supposed to sound!” The production bought not only the language to life, but also the culture, with many a sexual suggestion, dramatic flair, and a heavy dose of French humor.
While I am by no means fluent after a night at the theatre, these cultural experiences are necessary if one is to not just learn the language, but to learn the culture. French history does not live in textbooks; it is visible on the streets of the city, in the museums, the architecture, the churches, and in the people. Transforming the works of previous generations from words on a page to conversation, while certainly not always easy, is why I am a student of the humanities, and the chance to contextualize French culture in the country itself is worth getting a little lost on the metro for.
– Tess Steele