The Beginning of my Year Abroad
Living in a new country and having to speak a foreign language for the first time will obviously cause some problems. It is especially hard if you have none of your usual support system of friends and family around you (a situation in which I have found myself). The thing that shocked me the most when I first arrived in this fine country ― the same one that gave the world the calculator and Simone de Beauvoir ― was that France has all the vapid reality tv shows that we do. Now don’t get me wrong, I admit I enjoy a bit of reality tv escapism myself, it’s just that I had always thought that it was a particularly British and American phenomenon. But no, Big Brother exists here too, under the cunning alias Secret Story, and it is not a lone example. There is ‘Les Ch’tis à Hollywood’ which is essentially Jersey/Geordie Shore. It was very disconcerting to learn that there are French versions of Mike ‘the Situation’ Sorrentino in the world.
Once I got over my initial speechlessness from the shock that not everyone in France is Serge Gainsbourg, I had to deal with the embarrassment of trying to properly express myself in French. Here’s a tip when living abroad: don’t get into an awkward situation that you are unable to properly explain your way out of. I learnt this on my first day as an English teaching assistant in a high school. I was in a meeting with one of my new teacher colleagues and had taken out my phone to note the number of the school secretary, forgetting that I had thought it was hilarious to put an old picture of my boyfriend looking all fresh-faced and pre-pubescent as my phone wallpaper. There was an awkward moment of silence while I tried to think of how to explain the young boy staring up at us from my phone without getting myself fired and put on some kind of police register before the end of my first day.
I’ve now realised that awkward silences are just something you have to get used to when living abroad, because there are going to be lots of them. For instance, I can hold a conversation in French under the correct conditions, that is: when there is only one other person present, they are asking me direct questions, they are speaking more slowly than usual and I’ve had a couple of drinks, but I’m not hammered. Unsurprisingly, these specific conditions aren’t the norm in social interactions, making it much more difficult for me to speak to people. Therefore, surrounded by a group of drunk French people speaking to each other so fast it’s like words are going out of fashion, it’s impossible to join in the conversation. All my energy is focused on merely understanding everything that is said. It makes me feel awkward and a bit creepy sitting there in silence, moving my head back and forth to follow whoever is speaking, like some deranged nodding Churchill dog. It feels especially awkward to me since, in Britain more so than in France, it is excruciating to have a moment’s silence in the conversation. When I first encountered an awkward silence here and was unable to fill it with the usual superfluous chitchat about weather that we Brits have stored up in our heads for a rainy day (pun intended), I felt like I was letting myself, the queen and everyone else in the conversation down.
Recently though I’ve been thinking that these awkward moments have been good for me; I’m beginning to accept silences and not feel like it is my duty to fill them. At the end of my first month here I may not have learnt how to speak French properly yet, but I’ve learnt that sometimes I don’t need to say anything at all and it’s really not that bad.
Words and photographs by Anna Reid