“Oh, you’re English? My, your French is simply impeccable!”
He almost began to well up when he looked at the old lady. There, in the cramped surgery waiting room, he sat and considered this momentous event.
The small, obscure town in eastern France he had chosen purely for its obscurity, believing that there might be only a handful of English-speakers in the vicinity. Nobody back in the UK knew of it, and only a few of those who had heard its name were able to repeat it back. The proudest moment in its recent history was a short article in one of the Sunday papers back home, heralding it as “France’s hidden gem”. He felt happy for the town. They deserved some success. There was an imposing citadel, an array of splendid spires and the obligatory selection of quaint cobbled streets and parasol-lined squares. The people he found to be very friendly, although, this being his first time in France, he could make no comparison with anywhere else.
Upon his arrival he had found himself surrounded, much to his disappointment, by countless other young people in his situation. The only French folk he met were students of English, each clamouring for an opportunity to practice their learnt-by-heart textbook sentences, explaining how they like, euh, very much, speaking English, and describing their exciting visits to Buckingham Palace and the Tower of London and Warwick Castle and Windsor Castle and Rochester Castle and everything else they had seen on their school-trip in troisième. To his great frustration, people greeted him with interest everywhere he went because of his unusual accent and novel use of French grammar. He would listen jealously as Venezuelans and South Africans who, having spent years in the country living with Francophone partners, had acquired the near-native level that would allow them to avoid funny looks wherever they went. They would sit and chat away in French and then retire for the evening back to François’ or Annique’s to talk about their plans to get PACSed and raise bilingual children. Children being born with the innate ability to speak two languages, he thought, were the epitome of injustice. He envied them, resenting the monotonous, mono-national life of his own monolingual parents. Many a Frenchman or woman had expressed their envy of having, like him, English as a mother-tongue. This, however, was no consolation. Everybody spoke English. He found this to be very dull indeed.
His entire lifetime, or so it seemed, he had dedicated himself to learning this baffling language. He’d then gone to university to get to the bottom of it, which in turn had sent him all the way to France to crack the code once and for all. Over time, he became convinced of his inadequacy: he would never achieve the linguistic nirvana he desired. The approach of summer foreshadowed the end of his year abroad, and he was still stuck in his English-speaking bubble. His frustration changed into a melancholic acceptance of the situation. He would never be one of these gifted friends of his. His plan of finding a French girlfriend had come to nothing. Everybody said that this was the best way to learn a language. He looked back to his former self with a smile, the guy who had believed that an English twang would make girls fall at his feet. He had obtained very little success in this even back home, when clear communication came easily. With his only power gone, all he was counting on was the pity of some confused Manon or Claire to see that, deep down, he was a good person after all.
He wasn’t alone, though. His group of friends consisted of other non-natives with similar aspirations, each gasping to tell the others of any success they might have had in penetrating their host society. The main interest of this overseas companionship was to share the disappointments of communication with the natives. They would laugh, well out of earshot of any real francophone, and recount tales of failure at being French. Now and then, a member of the group would disappear, having crossed the threshold of some French person’s chambre, rendering those collective discussions and moans a thing of the past. He was at a loss for what to do. His friends had offered him no way out and he was waiting for a miracle to bring to an end his months of suffering.
The long-awaited miracle came in the form of praise from an elderly lady. It was the proudest moment of his entire life. After seven months of arduous survival in the francophone world, this was finally the recognition he deserved. Never before had he received such a compliment. The long, laborious evenings of stilted conversations with French companions, all endowed with incredible patience and advanced levels of English to understand his confused ramblings; the tedious hours poring over vocabulary lists and verb conjugations: all of this had finally paid off. This was the ultimate success, his Mecca as a linguist, the moment when the student shed at last his foreigner’s skin and made the transition into being accepted as one of them.
Everything about the dingy surgery reception paled into nothingness. The garishly made-up receptionist squawked out a surname, raising no interest at all in those sitting in the waiting room, least of all his. He knew it wasn’t his surname, as she hadn’t had a look of confusion on her face and hadn’t attempted to pronounce it more than two or three times. Even had it been, he would have ignored it. The blissfulness of being one with France drew him into a beautiful dream, the picture-postcard lifestyle of ordering a little morning coffee and conversing with market vendors and chatting to strangers at the cosy side-street bar in the evening. He might even get a girlfriend. Maybe this lady beside him had a beautiful Emilie on her way to pick her up after her appointment. Everything was now possible. This woman was his saviour. He was almost inclined to give her a swift peck on the cheek.
He barely noticed the receptionist barking angrily from her little booth, calling the old lady’s name over and over again. Her slow and laboured attempts to stand up would usually have aroused his chivalrous nature, making him run to her aid and offer a grandson-like arm. Her tottering footsteps towards the doctor’s office would generally have made him reflect on the passage of time, on the importance of grasping life with both hands and making the most of youth before it was too late. He was too caught up in his feelings of joy even to spot the hearing aids tucked inside each of the lady’s ears.
He had succeeded. He was, perhaps just for one instant, French.