“Shenanigans” in French is shenanigans. (And that’s why I’m tuning back in.)

Scenario: Eight people are seated around an enormous table. Seven of them are French. The eighth one is you. The seven French carry on three conversations, two main ones and another that’s fractured into conversation splinters as the speakers randomly jump from their conversation to put a word into the other.

The speakers have to speak loudly, because the table is huge. The speakers’ voices cross fluidly over each other between the conversations, merging in and out of the endless stream of language that is not yours, within meaningless contexts, because the voices belong to family and family friends with a long personal history together that has nothing to do with you. You’re sitting in the middle of it all understanding nothing, neither language-wise nor topic-wise.

You’re fine. You think nothing of it. You just do the natural thing: you tune out.

Then one of the speakers looks at you and asks whether you understood what was just said. You’re embarrassed, and you’d feel rude admitting, “No, I wasn’t even listening,” so you force a little smile and nod just slightly, feeling like you’re telling half a lie. Your response is more a gesture of acknowledgment, but still, you feel something of a fraud. Never mind that if you were listening and if you did try to understand, you probably could have!


Even in our own language, it’s easy to tune out when the conversation between old friends reaches back to old times. There’s an intimacy in reminiscing. Outsiders aren’t privy to the back-stories of the personal histories involved. Mysterious references are made, faceless names are mentioned. It’s like sitting down in front of the T.V. in the middle of an episode in a series you’ve never watched. When it happens in a foreign language you’re yet learning, it’s even easier to tune out, especially if there are several episodes playing at the same time. It’s okay, though, because it’s just as interesting to watch the speakers’ animated faces with their changing expressions, to note their body-language, to hear their exclamations and their laughter. People-watching is a pleasure in a universal language, no sub-titles needed.

But I digress.

All of this to say, I’ve returned to my efforts to converse in French. Last year I stopped working on it, and now I’m working on it again… but I just started working on it again. Hence, all of the French television series we’ve been watching.

This is the story and extent of my spoken French: it’s still true that I understand more than I can speak. I’m able to carry on a halting conversation with one or two people at a time. I can comprehend most of what’s being said, but I can contribute very little. I get nervous and tongue-tied; I forget most of what I know. (I’m socially anxious to begin with!) I speak French the most freely when alone with Callaghan, as I’m more relaxed around him.

The weekend was good. It was fun times with our visitors from France, and I enjoyed it. They’re lovely. Lovely people make the best visitors.

Not to mention, I still got to the gym on Saturday morning.

How Do You Say: “I was all, like, whatever! They were, like, totally making out!” in French?

Last night, my computer warned me that I had 11% battery power remaining. “I’m running out of juice,” I said to Callaghan, who was lying next to me reading a Jack Reacher novel.

“Are you getting tired, Baby?”

“No, well maybe a little, but I mean my computer needs to be charged.”

“Oh I thought it was YOUR juice that was running low!”


“No! No! I didn’t mean it like that. I meant it in a way, like, your juice, you know?”

“Even more….” I couldn’t stop giggling. You had to be there.

“You’re crazy.”

Fair enough. But that’s beside the point.

The point – I mean, the thing this calls to mind – is that verbal exchanges like this exemplify why I don’t want to speak just French with him. It would be boring, and “boring” is not allowed. The “B” word goes against our marriage contract.

Callaghan lived in the States for a decade spanning his 20’s to 30’s; he thinks like an American, and he enjoys speaking American English. Since the nuances, tones, innuendos and linguistic flavors (along with expressions and slang) are what endow a language with its personality, and since the personality of our relationship is American, the character of our verbal communication would change if we were to speak only French with each other. The components of the French language’s personality don’t translate to American English, and vice versa. Even though Callaghan and I often have a good laugh over his English mistakes, our relationship wouldn’t really be us in French, no matter how fluent I get. That’s where the threat of boring would come in.

To put it simply: It would be tiresome trying to keep the joy of our conversations afloat without the American English dips and waves and tides that define our rapport.

While we see nothing wrong with conducting our relationship in English, it slows my progress in improving my French, which I, of course, should do. After all, I live here in France. The last thing I need is border patrol running after my ass to throw me out because I want to “press 2 for English” on the phone.

The crux of the matter is that we live in the wilderness in virtual isolation.

For Callaghan, living with me in isolation is like living in the States again.

For me, living with him in isolation makes me forget that I’m in France.

And for both of us, excursions out serve as reminders that I need to be more immersed in society (in order for French to come more naturally to me).

Thus, I’m happy to have the opportunity to take a French course, which the government will provide for free. Yes! Eight hours a day, three days a week, for three months, I’ll sit in a classroom with other foreigners, learning French with a teacher whose mission in life is to bring French-as-a-second-language people up to speed so we can get jobs. (Callaghan says this is a part of the government’s “secret plot to turn us into slaves like the rest of the French population.” But that’s neither here nor there.)

The more I think about it, the more pleased I am… I’m actually ecstatic and impatiently waiting for the letter that will tell me where and when to go.

Meanwhile, I’ll attend my Orientation to Life in France, where I’m assuming they’ll teach me the proper way to do a champagne toast. Can you believe it? I’ve been in this country for over a year, and they’re just now setting me up with French and champagne toasting lessons! Hey – maybe they’ll also teach me skills such as entering a French roundabout without getting killed!  Gee Willikers, Batman!

Le Docteur

This morning, my husband and I went to the doctor, or, should I say, le docteur. So I’m in le docteur’s office trying to do three things at once: 1). Listen attentively as he talks to my husband so as to understand as much of what he’s saying as possible, and 2). Keep my mind from wandering, and 3). Listen attentively, and 4). Try to understand as much of what he’s saying as possible, and 5). Try to understand as much of what my husband’s saying as possible, and 6). Try to not get lost, and 7). Start the whole process again after I get lost, and 8). Try not to get frustrated as I find myself 10 sentences behind by the time I start trying to understand again because I got lost, and 9). Try to keep my mind from wandering as I think of how frustrating it is to try to understand everyone, and 10). Wait – that’s eight things. Or is it nine? I only meant to list three. Did you follow all of that? Neither did I.

This is my struggle as a non-fluent-French-speaker in France. Trying to follow a conversation in French is like trying to follow a mental tennis match, only it’s faster than tennis, so it’s more like ping-pong. The ball blurrs with speed, and the blurrier it gets, the harder it is to keep track, especially if I start seeing double and it looks like two balls. It flies around so quickly that by the time I find it, it’s already somewhere else. Next thing I know, the match is over, and I have no idea what I’d just seen. At that point, the only thing more mind-tangling is when one of the players turns to me with a question about the game. And since I do know something about it, there’s this idea that I’d successfully followed the ball. But the game is complicated. There are serves and pauses and front hands and back hands and double-vision balls bouncing off the net and getting caught off the edge and etcetera. Angles are involved. Angles! I’m going to start calling them “slangles.” My mind trips on the slangles every time. Most of the time, anyway.

Thankfully, I usually understand my husband’s questions, and I can even answer in ping-pong-ese. Other times – a lot of the time, actually – I get it, but I can only answer in English. And sometimes, I don’t get it at all. Then I feel like I let everyone down, especially after it had been noted that my understanding had improved so much.

This is just the normal docteur. This isn’t the shrink-docteur where I go once a month to have an actual conversation without my husband being there. It’s like trying to play ping-pong with myself, blindfolded. And I’m not even going to try to explain what that’s like.