Wednesday, June 10, 2009

English People!*

The setting: a big French supermarket that’s the equivalent of a Wal-Mart. A man is selling compilation discs and playing old 70s and 80s tunes at nearly deafening volumes to entice buyers. Mrs. Jones, that old soul classic, blares away. I hear a customer crooning perfectly with the end of the chorus: “we’ve got a th-iiiieeennggg, goin’ on….”. I whirl my head around, amazed that a French person would know the end of the line and pronounce it so well. And then I hear the crooner chatting with this son in a perfectly chipper British accent. I guess I felt brave that day, ‘cause I said “English people!” the way a child would shout out “ice cream” and I smile shyly at the two guys (or should I say chaps). But they mutter something like, yeah, just visiting, and go along there way. Leaving me feeling like a (major) goober and wondering if they thought I was (just) a little French gal trying out my English. I want to catch up with them and say, wait, I’m American! But what would they really care. It’s only me who’s entranced to hear my own language again and feel some sort of instant connection with these tourists.

Throughout the rest of the shopping experience I’m like a teenager who’s spotted her crush and both dreads and anticipates seeing him at every aisle. I rehearse other things to say but think better of it. Don’t want them to think I’m stalking them.

Why is it that the mere sound of a native speaker would make me all star-struck? Maybe I see these brief encounters as ways to feel like me again. And to remember who I am. To not feel like the odd one out, the girl with the accent when she speaks French. Instead I take charge of the situation again and am the girl conversing with other natives as French folks go by.

This was the case the other weekend when one of Remi’s British clients dropped by. There are a few of them who have summer or permanent places in the villages near his. He’s proud to use his English with them and tell them he has an American wife. So a recent Sunday when I was at his greenhouse, I got to meet this famous British client and her son and daughter-in-law who were visiting. Instantly we started chatting away, not worrying about non-English speakers being able to understand us or not. They had that easy-going way of talking and cheeky sense of humor that I associate with British folks, and which I find so refreshing. The son and his wife talked about how there was just nothing in the mom’s French village, not even a shop or two (my main complaint of small French villages, too). They even “talked” with Juliette, in English, of course. As we talked the French customers passed us by with their carts full of plants. And for a moment they must have felt like they were the outsiders in a world where there language wasn’t being spoken. It made me smile, because just for a moment, I felt more like home.

*Disclaimer: before I get hate mail from any Scottish/Welsh/Irish readers, I do know that English only refers to those who live in England. The more correct term is British if I’m not sure of the origin of that lilting accent.


Lindle said...

Being a native English speaker is a huge part of your persona. It is your "home base" of interacting with the world--thus, you do get a thrill when you hear something familiar in your adopted country--something that resonates with "home." Don't be shy next time. Say, "Hey, I'm American and I just enjoy hearing my language for a change."
Then all you need is a juicy hamburger, some fries and a Dr. Pepper, and a peach fried pie, and...Krispy Kreme Donuts-a typical balanced meal in America!

Crystal said...

omg i used to do that all the time...walking up to random strangers who were speaking english and just say something like "oh it's strange to hear english around here!" Most of the time, the conversations never went anywhere, but it always made me happy to have a little chat in english when I used to live up in the north. Now, in Paris, you hear english everywhere so it's not so "special" to hear english in the streets anymore. Plus the store owners and stuff are so used to tourists, that they never make little comments like "what a charming accent!" that I used to hear quite a bit in the north when I would speak to people. You'll realize how much you miss english when you go home...i swear half of my brain just turned off when I was home last week because understanding everything (tv, radio, people) was just automatic and I didn't have to make any efforts!

Jenenz said...

When you hear something familiar, it does perk you up, as if a light bulb has turned on in your head. You get that "connection" feeling all over your body. It's all about making a connection. Sometimes it happens, other times not. But the main thing is that you are open to receiving the connection when it does happen. And then it feels great to chat and connect.