Reluctant self-improvement: or, trying to parler français in St. Louis

Shout out to this blog for holding me accountable!

Remember when I told you I’d definitely keep up my French lessons à Saint Louis, if for no other reason than providing entertaining blog fodder? Well, I arrived, and I looked into affordable options, and I found exactly one—a meet-up group that gets together for two hours every Saturday afternoon to parler français ensemble.

First reactions:

  • For a city with so much French history, why is there only one French language meet-up?
  • Why does it meet on Saturday afternoons? That’s my prime hanging-out-with-Colin time!
  • And why does it last two hours???? That’s AN ETERNITY to speak a foreign language.

So I didn’t go. I told myself I would eventually, that I needed to prioritize time with Colin, that I couldn’t get to the cafe where the group met without a car. (That last one is true. Most of St. Louis is impossible to get to without a car, I’m realizing.)

Then, at the beginning of May, Colin went to Greece for his annual field research, and this time he left me behind. I couldn’t rationalize skipping the meet-up without him here, so I reluctantly asked my mom if I could borrow her car and decided I would try to parler français again.

It had been three months since I last spoke French to anyone other than myself, and I was horribly nervous. I was just hoping for a good story to share here.

But, you guys: I got nothing. Even though I’ve now been twice.

Both times, the group was entirely uneventful—not boring, since it was nice to meet new people and throw out my rusty French phrases, but I managed to introduce myself without creating an alter ego, I didn’t accidentally imply I was cheating on my husband, and I didn’t have to relive traumatic encounters with birds. (The best thing about St. Louis after my mom: THERE ARE NO PIGEONS!)

The most notable thing that happened was that a very nice – and talkative – guy came in 90 minutes late and proceeded to recount, in totally fluent French, every detail of his recent trip to Peru.

The weirdest thing that happened was just speaking French with a bunch of bubbly, opinionated Americans. In Paris, Laurine never let us get away with hyperbole. (I would NEVER do that!) “You Americans!” she’d laugh. “You say things are always this way, never that way, everything is parfait or terrible. The French, we like nuance. Sometimes it is this way, sometimes it is that way. We are not sure, but this is what we believe.” Laurine would have been horrified at the unmitigated declarations flying forth at this meet-up.

The most embarrassing thing that happened was that I forgot the word calme, which – you guessed it! – means and sounds exactly like its English equivalent calm. I was trying to respond to a question about the Gilets Jaunes, and I said that I had seen them but that the protests hadn’t been as intense when I was in Paris. “When I was there, everything seemed a bit more…” I trailed off, struggling to find a word to mean “less chaotic” or “less violent.”

Calme?” the guy sitting next to me offered.

Oui, calme. How embarrassing to forget such an easy word. My brain just turns off as soon as I switch to French.

In any case, I guess I’m going to have to try harder to find entertaining stories for this blog. My French is still atrocious, but the group doesn’t offer any corrections other than an occasional vocabulary assist, so I’m afraid that all my embarrassing mistakes are just sliding by unrecognized. Quel dommage!

My tools for learning French: Rosetta Stone (which I get for free through my university’s alumni program), children’s books, French podcasts, and my ever-present dictionnaire.

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