Wednesday, July 23, 2014

bring a straightedge, not a long skirt

three months later
Look at that Américaine sitting in the second row: twenty years old, wearing an elegant blouse and flowy skirt because everyone said the French are très chic, holding her new stylo plume (so different from the ballpoints she's accustomed to) expectantly above her new loose-leaf paper with a dizzying multitude of blue lines, eager to absorb the nuances of how to write literary analyses.

After all, back home, she is double majoring in creative writing and French!

The other students surrounding her are 90% female, all dressed in jeans and sweaters with lank ponytails looped and pinned to the back of their heads with barrettes.  Sloppy.

She's confused about a lot of things this first week at the French university.  Especially about how she can be attending a literature class in a lecture hall--no required reading, no class discussion, no office hours to drop by and talk with the professor, no campus bookstore, even.  (She's also shocked--shocked!--to learn that the school cafeteria sells beer.)

This young woman has just taken her first overseas plane flight, is living in her first apartment, is hearing native speakers of French all day long for the first time in her life (up until now, all of her teachers have been anglophones), and is slowly panicking as she realizes that she doesn't belong here. 

Only about half of what the professor intones makes sense.  No one else talks.  No one spoke to her when she sat down, either.  She is excruciatingly aware of how out of place she looks.  She's the only student in the row who doesn't have a little plastic ruler sitting beside a pencil case so that she can underline key points in a different color pen.  

plaisir d'écrire?
Who in the world takes the time to use a straightedge while taking notes during a lecture?  Everyone in France, apparently.

She's so tired, so scared, so clueless.  Her eyes well up and drip onto her paper, blurring the half-hearted monochromatic notes from her unnecessarily complicated stylo plume.  Her French isn't good enough to survive this class, this school, this year away from home.

And then she gathers her materials into the only backpack in the room (her fellow students carry shoulder-strapped leather satchels), gets up, and walks out before the end of the class for the first time in her life.


Yep, that eager, hapless, mystified girl was me.  My junior year abroad.  Of course, there's a happy ending to this story; I did end up taking literature and translation and linguistic classes (enjoying them so much that I went on to teach English to French speakers and then earn a masters degree in French).   I stopped washing my hair every day and started wearing jeans to class.  I became friends with French students with whom I am still in touch two decades later!  Learned to make a vinaigrette from scratch, to ski in the Alps, to understand French slang, to enjoy a glass of wine with my cafeteria lunch.  

And when my children travel to a francophone country to study, they will have a much better idea of what to expect than I did. (And I'll tell them to bring a straightedge just in case!)


This post was written for the July edition of the Raising Multilingual Children Blogging Carnival; our host, Cordelia at Multilingual Mama, asked us to share "the biggest linguistic challenge you've faced and how you overcame it."


  1. Ugh - I feel your heartache in that first class so acutely as I read this! Good for you for sticking with it, and for now imparting it to your children. Carry on!

    1. Study abroad is so valuable, but so scary at the same time (especially for us Type-A types)!

  2. hi Sarah. It's nice to see that you're still doing it! Reb (checking in after months and months and months)...

    1. Hello hello! I missed this comment while traveling and am looking forward to catching up on your blog soon--want to hear about your storytime, your increasingly bilingual kiddos, and all that good stuff.