Je suis un enfant terrible

Confessions of an unseasoned traveller.

I had all sorts of lofty plans to do more writing when I got to Montpellier, but I have been unable. I have forgotten how to speak English. I even forgot this isn’t new, whenever I go to a country where I don’t speak the language I somehow forget how to speak my own as well. It’s like a syndrome or something. I have stood at shop counters and in bars in countries other than my own waving my hands around and – this is deeply embarrassing, please don’t tell anyone – I have been known to utter the words…’ow you say..’ in a bad accent of questionable origins while searching for a word in a language I don’t know. Like a cartoon version of myself. As though mauling an accent makes me more likely to be understood. It is a testament to the enduring patience of the French people that they haven’t yet cancelled my visa.

It’s not just language, my brain doesn’t work quickly with anything when I’m travelling. I certainly don’t know how to function as a French person and I forget how to function as an Australian too. Small things. I walk on the wrong side of the road and faced with even the slightest hint of someone coming in my direction, I dart in front of them in a panic. I cry in public, as noted in previous musings, overwhelmed with beauty in the form of…. well anything really….small children saying ‘papa’ in French accents, dogs in handbags, anyone holding a baguette obviously, bridges set me off for some reason, old buildings, chefs in aprons standing in doorways smoking cigarettes and scowling. I’m apologetic for taking up space. I wear unattractive shoes.

I am slowly improving. This is after a harsh lesson on my honeymoon in Paris in 2012, learning after a month the mea culpa phrase I was saying to endear me to the locals, Je suis desole queue tu ne parles pas Francais, parles tu Angalis? was in fact informing native speakers of the language how sorry I was that they didn’t speak French and did they speak English? If I was looking for an easy way to make a tit out of myself, I may as well have taken to shouting ‘garcon’ and clapping my hands to get a waiter’s attention in restaurants.

In Montpellier where I have landed with my husband for the next ten weeks, the locals are a delight. People have been so friendly and kind. Not everyone speaks English, or they only speak a little, so I’m challenged a lot trying to bumble through basic life tasks I never have to think about at home. It’s a beautiful city, the Old District where we’re staying is a glorious rabbit warren of rambling, narrow streets that shoot off every which way, seemingly at random. It’s easier to get lost here than in any other city I have seen. After a few days, it makes its own kind of sense and it has a fascinating history that explains the layout of some of the original areas that were built in medieval times. I love it here.

I’m trying to use my best manners. I’m sorry to say it’s my fourth visit to France and it only just occurred to me this week that I might make an effort to find out what might actually qualify as good manners as opposed to assuming I know because, yunno, isn’t it obvious? I started by researching ‘etiquette in France,’ and by ‘research’ I mean I googled so I realise I won’t be getting a Legion d’Honneur medal anytime soon. I did read across many sources that it’s both normal and good manners to say hello and thank you and goodbye, have a nice day, in almost every public encounter, from asking directions to buying bread. I’m also sorry to tell you that in the past unless people were smiling broadly at me and sounding clearly friendly when they were saying bonjour, I assumed they had clocked me as a foreigner and were being sarcastic. But here, even people who look like they’re having a crap day and can’t be bothered with you, will still be polite. It’s shamefully revealing that using basic niceties when you approach a stranger has been a huge revelation. And even for someone who is terrible with language, it’s not so hard to learn hello and thank you.

I’m having a slight crisis of confidence where I’m suddenly remembering many, many instances of appalling manners I have displayed not just in the last week, but in the entire 56 years of my life. My brain may be mostly mush but oddly my memory of my own disgraceful behaviour is sharper than ever. So there’s that discomfort. But I’m also loving it. My life has become so much simpler, really fast. I feel like I’ve regressed to some kind of inner childlike state that hippies I grew up with in Fremantle would pay thousands to replicate. I’m moving slowly, I’m not collapsing on street corners howling into my hanky so much, but I am pausing to appreciate so many small moments of wonder I come across all the time. Things I’d overlook at home because of the familiarity or because I’m busy. I face the day with no loftier intention than wandering through beautiful Montpellier, going to the market, buying milk for coffee and not being an asshole about it. I considered it a highly successful series of events yesterday when I found the local swimming pool, bought a ticket and swam. I had a nap to recover. It was glorious.

So I beat on, a boat against the current of my own ignorance, to misquote F Scott Fitzgerald. The impact of my learning on the lovely people of Montpellier is not completely lost on me, so I’m trying to keep my footprint small and spend my money as liberally as I can afford and as locally as I can. I’m trying to learn as much of the language, even badly, as I can manage in ten weeks. I’m in a lot of uncomfortable situations. But also, I’m having so much fun. I haven’t been so effortlessly mindful in years. Decades. I feel happier, less shy, less fearful. And not in any way that means anything at all to anyone but me, I feel a tiny bit braver than I did a month ago. Although I did just that second have to check if I’d spelled ‘braver’ right because it looked weird on the page.

Merci, au revoir et passe une bonne journee.

15 thoughts on “Je suis un enfant terrible

  1. Très charmante histoire. As my Dad would say “C’est la guerre”! Keep struggling and celebrating small gains. We met up with friends in Arles some years back and she was impressed with how I managed to order a bottle of sparkling water. A timeless, smug nugget of joy.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Gorgeous! Breathe, eat, and enjoy the eau gazeuse…and plenty of vin rouge/blanc. Loving your observations and reflections. Keep them coming! Or don’t, if you don’t feel like it.

    Liked by 1 person

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