France Vicariously

Yes, I realize that I’m not the one going to France; it’s my daughter who’s going to be the exchange student. But I can’t help myself. I’m going to take this opportunity to learn as much about France as I have time for.

If I was starting up a whole new blog I suppose I would call it Vive la France du fait d’autrui. Or maybe just France Vicariously, since I would know for sure then that the words were in the correct order.

No, I do not parlez-vous français. My daughter is in French III class, but no, she does not speak French either.

It was right before Christmas when we learned she’d be spending her junior year in France. I wanted to put something under the tree to get our great learning adventure underway, so I started with these three little dictionaries that I found in our local Barnes & Noble.

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We got a few good laughs from these literal meanings:

J’ai un coup de pompe. I’m feeling tired. Literally, I’ve been hit by a pump.

Il y a du monde au balcon. She has big boobs. Literally, the balcony is crowded.

Tu me gonfles. You’re getting on my nerves. Literally, you make me swell.

Je lui ai roulé un patin. I French-kissed him. Literally, I rolled a skate to him.

I’d say, from these examples, that this dictionary is definitely written for teenagers.

In addition to the confusion that such literal phrases will create, we also learned that French hipsters from the suburbs of Paris started “verlan” – a form of French slang created to confuse the uncool. Verlan works by rearranging the order of letters or syllables of a word. A sort of French Pig Latin, it sounds like.

And, of course, there are the French abbreviations, symbols, and acronyms used when texting.

:—) Je t’m +. C ni is the equivalent of Tu es un menteur. Je ne t’aime plus. C’est fini. You’re a liar. I don’t love you anymore. It’s over.

The smiley face emoticon with the long nose means liar. Bonjour Pinocchio.

How about this one? Cpa5p means C’est pas sympa. That’s not nice. Yes, the fourth character is a five.

That really isn’t nice. They’ve got their basic French, crazy literal phrases, verlan, and Frexting. (This is why I’m perfectly happy to be doing the French experience vicariously.)

After Christmas, we ordered several books, the one that grabbed my attention the most being Au Contraire! Figuring Out the French.Figuring Out the French During the Rotary Youth Exchange selection process, we learned that France is one of the most difficult countries to go to for an exchange. But why? Surely, we cannot just say that the French loathe Americans. There has to be more to it than that.

Mort Rosenblum, in Mission to Civilize: The French Way talks about how surface familiarity can be deceptive. “Outsiders go wrong by looking at France through their own optics. It is always a jolt for veteran travelers to find that culture shock in France is more severe than in Saudia Arabia or Bolivia. Elsewhere, things look and sound different, so you expect them to be different. France looks like home, or at least like familiar old postcards and paintings. Surprise.”

The authors of Au Contraire! say that the surface similarities and hidden differences can lead to situations that are uncomfortable, confusing, comic, or catastrophic. One example is this. When Starbucks launched its French business in 2003 they imported their friendly U.S.-style customer service. Patrons were initially shocked and appalled when the baristas asked for their first name after placing an order.

Calling someone by their first name? It is clear that my daughter will be guilty of many a faux pas during her time in France. I hope to learn what I can ahead of time and share them with her and here on my blog as well. She, in the meantime, will be busy learning the basics of the language.

For now, c’est fini.

OPEN IT!

They said we’d know by December 17th or 18th. They said the letter would come by mail. U.S. mail. In the mailbox.

December 17th came and went. No letter.

December 18th came and went. No letter.

And so I was awake in the wee hours of the 19th, not realizing at first that it was the day, the day the letter would arrive, that had me awake, feeling anxious.

Please, I prayed, let it say yes. Let it say she’s been selected.RYE

Please, I prayed, let it say no. Let it say that she won’t be going away, that she won’t be leaving me.

How could I want it to say anything but yes? This is what my daughter wants. This is her dream. To be chosen as a Rotary Youth Exchange student for her junior year in high school. What an incredible opportunity. Why would I want the letter to say anything but yes?

How could I want it to say anything but no? This is my baby. My friend. My roommate. My daily joy. How could I send her away for ten months?

But December 19th came and went. No letter.

That left the 20th. Friday the 20th. Surely they wouldn’t make us wonder all through the weekend. Yes, the 20th had to  be the day.

But the 20th was problematic. Amy was leaving school early with her swim team for an out-of-town two-day swim meet. She wouldn’t be coming home on the 20th, wouldn’t be home until late afternoon the following day.

“What if the letter comes, Amy? What should I do?”

“What do you mean, what should you do?”

“Should I open it?” How could I not?

“No! Wait for me!” Of course. Of course, I knew I should wait for her. It was her letter. It would be addressed to her. But how could I wait?

And then, there it was. The letter in the mailbox.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI brought it inside. It was well sealed. I held it up to the light. No luck. I texted Amy. Your letter came.

I wasn’t expecting a return text right away. She was at a swim meet, after all. But, she responded within seconds.

OPEN IT!

My older daughter was there, home, on the couch. “She wants me to open it!” I told her.

“Well, do it, Mom. What are you waiting for?”

“I don’t know.” Yes, I did. “I guess it seems like she should be here.”

“She said open it, didn’t she?”

“Okay.” I slipped one finger under the flap on the back and lifted it carefully, a few millimeters at a time.

“Mom, hurry up! Just tear it open!”

“I can’t.” I sped up a little though until the flap was entirely unsealed and the letter was visible.

I removed the letter from the envelope and held it to my chest.

“Mom.”

“It’s too exciting. I’m scared. I’ve never been this scared to open anything before.”

I unfolded the top third and scanned for those crucial first few words. There they were. It is with great pleasure…

Relief. Relief, relief, relief. Relief that my daughter won’t experience the disappointment of not being selected.

I read those five words aloud then, and, once again, put the letter to my heart.

“Come on, mom! Where’s she going?”

It would be in the next paragraph. I folded the bottom third down and there, in capital letters, wasOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

FRANCE. Her original choice, the country she wanted to go to in the first place, when she started this process two months ago, back when she thought she could choose a country and they’d say okay and that was all there would be to it.

“FRANCE!” I told her sister. Her sister who will be off to college next year. Her sister who knows, as I do, that the time for them to separate after all these years of growing up together will be much easier if they leave home at the same time.

And then I cried. I laughed and I cried. I went into the kitchen and came back to the living room. I sat down. I stood back up.

“I don’t know what to do,” I said.

“Mom, let her go. She’ll be fine.” My daughter looked at me as if I was crazy, as if surely I had to have agreed to letting her go long before this point, this moment of getting the letter.

“No,” I explained. “I mean right now. I don’t know what to do with myself.” I was too thrilled–too needing to talk to Amy, to hug her, to celebrate with her–to do anything else.

FRANCE!

The months of preparation begin now.

FRANCE!