DIARY FROM EUROPE:
Foiled by a lack of fluency in French, Daisy gets kicked out of her apartment.
By DAISY NGUYEN
Blast France Bureau
I moved between two of the biggest capitals of Europe -- Paris and
London -- via the chunnel recently. In a matter of three hours, one
can be transported by the ultra-slick Eurostar from Paris' Gare du
Nord to London's Waterloo station. 180 mph, or if you like, 300
kilometers an hour baby! This yellow submarine doesn't just swim, it
slides fast. Anyone who's seen "Mission: Impossible" could imagine the
rapidity of the train and its flying rubber effects on poor Tom
Needless to say, one can find the maximum of excitement in these two
capital cities. Going to London, however, was especially rejuvenating because I found myself in an anglophone country again. All was familiar, all was
understandable and people were terribly polite there.
I have been living in France for about six months and was happy to go to England for a visit. Going from one country to another, interestingly, stirred a new sympathy and sensitivity to tourists in me. "Those poor American tourists in Paris!" I told my friends. "No wonder they think the French are rude, they can't get much help when they don't speak the language."
In London: "Those poor French tourists! We must help them," I urged my
friends. "They hardly understand what that man in the information booth is saying! We must help these people." We approached them and offered some diplomatic translation skills.
I am not saying that I felt sorry for them out of some air of
superiority because I happen to be bilingual. On the contrary,
I've just learned from my travel experiences that language is a
powerful tool for adapting into a new environment. In just three
hours, one can go from a French-speaking world to an English-speaking
I learned that knowing a language also becomes a survival skill
from the first month I arrived in Grenoble, France where I was looking
for an apartment. On the day I got kicked out of my first apartment by a monstrous, to say the least,landlady, I learned that knowing lots of French was neccessary for disputes.
With a fellow American friend, I moved into my first apartment
blindly believing I could trust the landlady, Madame Rizi. We had hit
off nicely at the first meeting and decided to move in, paying our
first month's rent in cash and putting aside the formal paperwork. After
two weeks of living with Madame Rizi, we realized that it was not the best situation and decided to move out. On the day we announced our desire leave, she became furious and refused to let us go, saying we must keep our word and stay until the end of the school year. A huge dispute ensued, causing the police to come interfere, consequently leading Madame Rizi to invent a story to them. She claimed that we had moved in without paying any rent nor signing any lease. So, she said, we would have to pay her even more!
Without documents to prove that we paid her one month's worth of
rent and that we have the right to leave, the landlady had a case
against us. We made a verbal agreement and that was not enough for the police
to let us go, especially since she told the police we had not paid her a franc.
Madame Rizi threatened to take us to court. That moment became a critical situation since it was her words against ours, and it is up to the judge to decide who sounds more convincing. At that point, my French was still at a
level where I could only speak with correct grammar (what an effort!)
and be as direct as possible. After having studied French for only two
years, I had not yet acquired the sophistication to elaborate my
discourse or just plainly convince a judge of the Grenoble court
that it was actually us who were falsely accused. I felt awfully helpless. What is the point of existing if you can't communicate or be understood?
Luckily, thanks to many random acts of kindness from strangers, including some
people in high places, I got out of the sticky situation (and the
hellish apartment) by having to do lots of explaning and being as
direct as possible. I couldn't spin off an intricate story the way
Madame Rizi did to the police.
At that critical moment, I realized the power of words as a tool of influence. Anyone who's beginning to learn a new language would understand the frustration of not being able to fully express oneself in it. You can only rely on the elementary level of expressing yourself, which doesn't fully capture your essence.
Last February, Woody Allen appeared on a French talk show to promote
his Valentine's day flick, "Tout le monde dit I love you." Everyone
appreciated the fact that Woody spoke in French. He made an effort at
least, and with the help of a little earphone that interpret words for him,
Woody was being his charming little self and the French loved his cute
"I don't know why," he said, "but everyone in France, particularly in
Paris, loves my films. I am more well known here than in the United
States! You guys must do a really good job translating my pictures."
Perhaps. Either that or they really dig small neurotic guys who thinks
a baguette is a phallic symbol. During this show, however, Woody just
couldn't seem to be his usual brilliant self. The interviewer asked
very banal questions to which he could only give simple replies. It
was his limited French that did him in.
Nevertheless, "tout le monde" still loves Woody here. His films are a
great success and, yes, perhaps the translation may have something to
do with it. In viewing English films here, I've noticed that context
tends to change in translations. However, all these observations
couldn't have been possible had I not learned the French language.
Most of the French population understand a bit of English here. This
is a country where "le weekend," "le business," and, oh yes, "le Big
Mac" has entered into the daily vernacular. English, everyone agrees, is becoming an international language. It is hypertexted on the Internet,
heard on the airwaves and on the movie screen. Who in the world does not know the Fugees hit "Killing Me Softly" by now, even if they hardly speak English?
In France, all high school students must learn English. It is also a requirement for many college students where even "technical" English is essential for certain disciplines. If English is such a useful language in today's global village, how will the native English speaker be affected by this change? Do they need to learn a foreign language? As one French woman I met in London answered to me,"No."
She was in London to learn English to prepare herself for the tourism
industry. "It's important," she says, "to learn English to work with
the American tourists who come to France. When you come to France, we
cater to you. But when a Frenchman comes to the U.S., rarely can
someone help us in French. So, that is why I need to learn English."
As a student whose goal is to become fluent in French, I am
very supportive of bilingualism. The doors are much wider for
bilinguists. Acquiring a language is like acquiring another reality, to enter into the consciousness of another civilization. One can read a newspaper article on one event -- in the New York Times or Le Monde -- and see two different ways the journalist of each paper viewed the event, depending on his or her background. It is the same event, but the perspective isn't.
Finally, learning a foreign language allows an easier entry into
meeting people and getting to know their backgrounds -- whether they
are Irish tourists in Paris or French ones in London. On the practical
side, it also allows you to have a romping good time watching the
films of Woody Allen and reading the sub-titles.