Functional French and it's Benefits

The Good and the Bad of being fluent in a language came to me this morning after a rough evening at an English book club. Living in a country where I only speak a “functional French” and that is still limited to mostly face to face conversations versus the telephone, I’ve actually been secluded from having to deal with conflict, anger, other people’s “pain body” as Eckhart Tolle calls it or ordinary frustrations. I smile on greeting, say “Bonjour,” and at times enter into a conversation about scheduling a play date, a pickup or asking a question. My comfort level with deep, fluent conversations in French is still limited to my hour with my French teacher who tolerates anything and talks with me about everything, a five minute conversation here or there with a patient person I’ve gotten to know or with friends and neighbors when Jean is there to help fill in the gaps later of what I missed. As a result I never realized how protective being only “functionally French” is. I don’t have the capacity, the language, the speed of speech, or the tenacity to engage in conflict in French. As a result I am quite a peace in the language!


Maybe this is my answer to a more peaceful existence while living here!


This came to roost last night when I attended an English book club with an assortment of English and Scottish women from various walks of life now residing in the Uzes area either full or part-time. Most I admit are a good ten to twenty years older than I am with vast life experiences different than my own. This should make for a rich book club discussion for me, but at times I felt like the foreigner (which I am) being American not English. I actually started the book club last year after desperation to have people to talk to about books I was reading. Trying to make it easy, I suggested in the beginning it be leaderless and rotate hosting the club. Starting with a few women I chose I found it delightful, enlightening and great conversation. Not having control (Zoé said was my first mistake – I should have stayed President) a few people left, and new ones joined us. One particular woman appeared last month who at first sight reminded me of an elegant older strong minded, independent woman who was French but had lived 30 years in high English society. Speaking 4 languages she was intelligent, very well read, smart, opinionated, and also seemed to have an edge, a need to be right, an aura that made me want to stand back for fear she would sling nasty words my way.


The conversation as many do shifted from the book to the ways of the world, to justifications, prejudices, fears, and human nature. Without realizing what was happening I got caught in a web of words and thoughts, slashed at the throat with responses to my opinions to the point that I was near tears. “Stop.” I said. “I don’t want to continue this conversation.” But no, the woman had to continue. She had to be right. She had to be heard. Then she burst out, “my baby twins were stolen across the border by my husband.” The group went hush, and a few questions were asked. But she kept holding on throwing her daggers at me. Others realizing we needed to change topics, finally got a word in edge wise to move us back to the book. What happened there I thought. I felt like I was at war. It felt like there was no room for differing opinions only hers.


The rest of the evening I stayed a big quiet, adding only when I felt safe. “Safe,” I thought to myself. ‘That is not why I am in a book club.”


So being fluent in the English language I can engage in conflict and am pulled into it without knowing. – Maybe this is the downside of being too fluent. I knew I must have unconsciously pushed her wounds to the point of such strength that she had to lash out. But I don’t want to be involved in those conversations. I don’t want to be around those people who have to lash out. I don’t want conflict in my life.


Leaving to go home I walked down the dark, but safe streets of Uzes to the parking lot. Walking down the stairs to pay my fee, I gasped as I saw the parking machine was locked up. “What did I do? I thought, crying to myself still shaken from the evening. I glanced around and read a notice to call in emergency. Dialing the number I thought, “Shit French, I hope I can do this.” Explaining to the man where I was and the machine was locked and my ticket wouldn’t work to open the barrier, I began to cry again. “Shit… I can’t understand him.” Five minutes later after numerous responses, “Repeatment sil vous plait,” I gave up and called Jean. “Please call him and call me back. I don’t know what he is saying on the phone.” A minute later Jean, knowing I was near hysterics, calmly told me to walk to the other end of the parking garage and there was an open machine at the entrance




“Why didn’t I know that? Why didn’t I understand him? I yelled in the phone.”


“Talk to me as you walk, relax. We’ll talk later. Something happened. I can tell you aren’t thinking.”


“So know it’s the language and thinking combined!!” I cried back.


Ten minutes later I arrived home and ran into his arms.


“I thought I was functional and I couldn’t understand him.”


“It’s 11 at night, you are tired. This woman battered you and you are vulnerable. Besides, it is hard to understand on the phone and he was hard to understand. You can do it, it’s just harder. Even if he spoke English in the state you are in I’m not sure you would have heard him either.” Jean responded.


The next morning Zoé, hearing the story from Jean, told me the problem was I didn’t dress right. I should have worn high heels, a dress, and my hair in a bun and I would have shown her.”


“Plus,” she added, “You should just take back the Presidency and kick her out.”


What wise words I thought. Next time I’ll take her advice.