As with most liberal arts educators, my college required that I pass a competency exam in a foreign language. I opted to take French. My first two semesters of French classes took place at 8 AM, which I’d like to believe is my excuse for doing so poorly. I simply could not (slash cannot) speak French. In fact the only French I knew confidently after two years was ”Oui”, “Bonjour” and “Pardonnez-moi, je suis un incompétent américain et ne peut pas parler votre langue” (Pardon me, I’m an incompetent American and I cannot speak your language). Although I didn’t flunk any of my classes, and even passed the competency on my first go, none of this was a true testimony to by ability to speak the language. More accurate is one professor who told me at the end of the semester that I was “always a pleasure to have in class” because I “provided a sense of comedic relief.” Since then, I have not attempted to speak French.
Yesterday was my second day of work and despite poor weather I had four clients on a half-day tour. As I was assembling my gear, I saw them walk in and went over to introduce myself.
“Hi, my name is Bryn and I’ll be your guide today.”
The first one smiled back at me and shook my extended hand, then added: “Bonjour, parlex vous français?”
Turns out my all of my clients were French speaking Canadians, from Quebec and Ottawa. Luckily, all but one of them spoke English as well. But the one who didn’t still loved to engage me in conversation, to which I responded with the only French I knew:
I smiled brightly: “Oui.”
A confused look. “A partir de cette région?”
“Bonjour?” I replied
“Avez-vous une idée de ce que je dis en ce moment?”
Again, I smiled, appealing to the concept of charming ignorance. “Pardonnez-moi, je suis un incompétent américain et ne peut pas parler votre langue.”
Luckily for both us, he eventually got the hint and from that point on either received translations from another on the trip or motioned to me with hand signals. Except for my occasional tour guide notations, they spoke happily amongst themselves, and I was content to paddle alongside and listen in blissful oblivion.
The half-day tour runs for about four hours, so we took a break after about ninety minutes. As we were sitting on a rocky beach in the fog, I talked with each of my clients (in English, of course). We discussed baseball and hockey, weather, music and even Canadian politics. Within the duration of our conversations, I learned that I know very little about my neighbors to the north. They, on the other hand, not only spoke my language fluently, but also had a genuine grasp on American culture and lifestyle. This was inspiring in a simultaneously humiliating kind of way.
And thus, I’ve decided, that I need to get out more, as in out of the country. There is a blessed perspective that comes to ones worldview, when seen outside of ones own national bubble. Whether it’s knowing multiple languages, understanding foreign politics, or simply possessing a geographical awareness outside of the United States, I think there is much to be gained from taking the time to see myself not as a citizen of America, but as a single human in a worldwide community.
So I’ve decided to visit Canada sometime this summer, preferably Montreal. As long, that is, as I can find a cheap French pocket translator…but they aren’t sold in Gloucester souvenir shops either.