To some, a simple phrase like that can mean nothing. Sure, anyone who has taken French 101 knows that bienvenue means welcome, a literal translation made by pairing bien, the word for well, and venue, a form of come. Yet, a trivial word such as bienvenue was one I was thrilled to know when I arrived in Bordeaux yesterday. To be honest, I don’t think I realized how much I take language and communication for granted in the U.S.
Here in Bordeaux, there is a sizeable portion of folks who speak English, though, as it is usually their second or third language, communication isn’t perfect. As a result, they speak French unless circumstances forbid, which I certainly don’t blame them for. Nonetheless, as a native English speaker with a knowledge of French that is better on paper than spoken, communication has been a bit of a give-and-take. Through my butchered French, and the French students’ knowledge of English, things have worked out.
I am currently living in the house of a florist in a suburb of Bordeaux called Talence. The florist, my landlady, lives here with her son and his daughter. They have a section of the house that they rent out to students like myself, and so I have occupied the space this semester. It isn’t a suite at the Four Seasons, but it will work for me. My landlady is very kind, and reminds me of my two sweet grandmothers. She took me shopping when I arrived yesterday so that I would have food and supplies to get started. She also has challenged me to learn French, as she refuses to speak to me in English. Yet, while this has been initially frustrating, her patience and warm personality has indicated to me that she is doing this to help me learn the language faster. It will help me hopefully break the stereotype of being a clueless American.
This brings me to another point. Tonight, all of the international students had a welcome dinner downtown, whereby we got meet and connect with one another. I got to talking to two students from Hamburg, Germany about the American stereotype, and their replies suprised me. They said they didn’t fault us at all for boasting a majority that does not speak a second language, and can often seem unengaged with the rest of the world. Their reasoning was a simple as pulling out a map. In Europe, countries are, in a lot of ways, like states, or perhaps regions (Great Plains, Atlantic Coast, Pacific Northwest, The South, etc.), with their own cultures, food, and types of people, though the magnitude of variety isn’t as great due to being under one government. The difference is that, in Europe, the languages change as one moves from nation to nation, making it a necessity to know more than one. It’s like having to know another language to get by in Wisconsin. One of them asked me where Americans liked to vacation, to which I named Hawaii, Florida, and California – All English speaking places. To them, vacation is in the south of France or Spain, or perhaps Greece or Italy, all of which require a different language, and a very different culture. This forces Europeans to be very connected throughout the entire continent, and learning languages like English allows them to visit the U.S. and be very connected with news here, whether it sports, entertainment, or politics.
This conversation made me feel a lot better, not that I am succumbing to my language inferiority, but rather comforted by the fact that after two days of struggling, a European didn’t discount me for my lack in language proficiency.
In summation, these first couple of days have left me feeling a bit lost in communicating. I realized how beneficial it was to have a whole group of American students to travel with when I visited France with my high school band a few years ago. In a way, there was a shield put up between us and the locals, as we preferred to speak English amongst ourselves. When you’re on your own, there isn’t a much of a safety net. But, I think I’ll appreciate taking this challenge sometime down the road.
I’m looking forward to running here tomorrow. The sidewalks are a bit narrow, so things could get interesting with pedestrians. Oh well. The places and conditions I’ve run in back in the U.S. already have people saying “What in the world is that dude thinking?”
It should be a blast. On an unrelated note, the chocolate milk has been located. I should be comfortable for awhile. 🙂
Until next time,