Saturday, April 11, 2009

Week #1 in Flers, France

Before I sit here regurgitating events, I must say that this week has been simultaneously delightful and very difficult for me. I'm so incredibly fatigued. I have raw emotions that cannot be expressed to anyone but my boyfriend, so they tend to pour out or be held in.

I can see how silence is a good thing sometimes - a way to reflect and find peace - but I have experienced the same frustration many who emigrate to new cultures have. I can see how deep depression is possible with such huge language barriers, and I cannot count how many times I've been in a room full of people who are laughing and talking and introducing one another as I stand there... just staring. Trying to smile. Trying to be "myself" among strangers. Most of the time, I pretend to understand. If I don't, I look rude. But if I pretend to engage and they learn I cannot speak French at all, then that is confusing for them. At dinner parties, the best expression I have found is it busy my focus. I read the french headlines of newspapers sitting on the mantel, I watch distant cartoons on tv screens, or I eat my food very slowly. The moment you seem bored, they stop their flow of conversation because they feel bad. And I don't want that, I just want to seem comfortably invisible until I can start to understand or at least say a few words back instead of having to rely on Phil to stop his conversations in order to translate what is typically a topical discussion anyway.

It was Franck's cycling team's picture day last weekend. It took place both in the parking lot of a huge Home Depot-like company that sponsors them. The rain was pouring and we were taking a break from standing outside in it by sitting in the backseat of their nice stationwagon. Phil, Christian, and I were laughing about something. Before I knew it, Phil's elbow snapped back toward my middle seat. Fast, hard, and perfectly cocked, it got me dead in the nose. Now, I've never had a bloody nose that I can remember, but whooooosh do the tears and blood stream out! Phil and Christian were in shock, I was in shock, and we were all trying not to laugh. 'It wasn't on purpose' he apologized over and over again. Thinking we were almost ready to go home, I didn't care that much. But three minutes later, Franck said it was time to go inside for a reception. Phil pointed me in the direction of the bathroom as we got inside and insisted that I take my time and clean up. (That's how I knew it was bad - he doesn't wait 10 minutes for me to get ready to leave anywhere without getting annoyed with my girlish ways...) Sure enough, my face was puffy and I looked miserable, but wanting to be a part of the festivities, I dabbed the nose a few times with cold pink toilet paper (it's pink here) and hurried upstairs. I went to go stand by Stephany and Franck as Phil and Christian autographed posters for the kids. I felt alright (especially when no one was trying to talk to me through my watery eyes). Then, amidst numerous introductions, kissing each cheek once and shaking hands, I was introduced to someone in particular. In slow mo, I lean in, kiss each of his taut 70 year old cheeks, and resume upright position. He looked shocked, this very well-dressed man. I watched Stephany's face turned bright red and heard Franck crack some sort of a joke about my being from the U.S. or something. The man spoke in French to me, then asked in English if I voted Obama. I hooted and did a mini fist pump. Ugh, I thought, that was stupid!!! But it was the first U.S. reference I'd received in weeks. He laughed and smiled genuinely, saying that he was so glad that we met, and that I greeted him the way I did.

I felt like I must've done something right, eh? Not so much. As soon as he was more than an earshot away, Phany, Franck, Franck's friend Richard, and Phil were all laughing and pointing at me. They said that ONLY when they know someone personally am I allowed to kiss the person's cheek. This man, the one I leaned into and kissed not once, but twice, was the Mayor of the city of Coutances, and very important. They had never met him before. Still recovering from my injury to the face - and now a major hit to the self-confidence - I could do nothing but split. It was that, or make an even bigger fool of myself and my surrogate French family with the tears that were welling up in my eyes.

So, I roamed the store. I had simply had it with the language, with being made fun of without understanding why or how. Plus, looking at rakes, old people canes, dog food, and fake plants had never sounded so appealing - especially since they'd help me fight back round two of uncontrollable tears that day.

Since then, things have gotten better. My nose healed up just fine, and Phil and I took a spin on my Amore & Vita racing bike. It's measured perfectly for my body, which is still crazy to think about. I feel like Orphan Annie trying to clean the floors of Daddy Warbucks' mansion when I sit on it. I feel like she deserves to be in the Tour de France. That I don't deserve her at all.

I call her Black Beauty because I really think bicycles are modern day horses. And because they need to be trained in like colts do. Black Beauty decided to buck me off that day, and I haven't had the guts to get back on since since the flaps of skin that were torn halfway on my right palm are finally healing now from a "rocky" landing. But I still love her, and we'll eventually become one... that is if my friend Cloudy doesn't step in.

Cloudy is a miniature horse (really, he is) that I discovered on my run three days ago. I stopped to see if he wanted to hang out with me on one of my runs around the countryside. I held out my hand and whistled to him and to my amazement, he trotted over without hesitation. We sat there for a good 10 minutes chatting about life, and living in France, and everything else. He even stuck his entire head through the barbed wire to get a good scratch on his muddied nape. He's alone in there. We connected on a pretty deep level.

(I should add that I had attempted to make friends with some huge cows while we watched a nearby race last weekend. An entire road full of people watched me in astonishment as I approached them with outstretched arm. Phil was so embarrassed, but seriously, animals are the only beings that seem to speak my same language in this country.)

I must confess something though... the french language is actually starting to make some sense. I still don't understand the way they eat meat, but at least I can greet people properly and say goodbye, I can understand simple questions about the weather, and those who/what/where/why questions that the three year old Romaine asks. Above all, I think that I could probably do an impressive impersonation at this point. I've got their intonation down pat.

Some quick observations now:
1) The French put ham (jambon) in everything. If you are the guest, they serve you first, and watch to see exactly what you are eating - then they ask you about not eating much meat - on a daily basis. They sip coffee multiple times a day and use sugar cubes, not sugar granules to sweeten it. Very, very rarely is milk or cream added.

2) They don't recycle. It bothers me, so I bring the glass to the recycling receptacle myself. But I haven't seen anything for plastic yet... anywhere. Phil resists the idea of recycling too. It's backwards, in my opinion, and I let everyone know this.

3) French women raise their eyebrows when they talk. It's funny to watch. But deep down, I'm envious of the neat way their mouth has to move in order to pronounce French properly. It's ladylike and elegant.

4) They make fires in the fireplace nightly to warm the house when it's cool. Sometimes they thrown in plastic bottles. Don't ask.

5) The toilets have two buttons that I am still figuring out since it seems each toilet's two buttons operate differently. Oh, and they use light pink toilet paper.

6) Anyone who has been a part of Phil's riding career here has Canadian flags, Maple Leaves, Canada maps, Canada DVDs, Canada chairs, and Canada blankets, Canada mugs, Canada light fixtures, and even Canada tattoos. Ok, that was a stretch, I admit. But seriously, they love him almost as much as they love the red and white.


  1. Hey Sonja! Laurie sent me a link to this -- can I ever relate after all my trips to Quebec! There's only so long you can pick at your fingernails! I've learned to bring something to read and excuse myself to a quiet corner. Also heard you got the Fulbright - congrats!

  2. Sweetheart, keep your chin up! You are such a strong independent woman. I am so proud of you and what you are doing. It sure seems like it is hard, but I don't think anyone could be doing it better. Continue to be your most awesome self. Thinking of you...lotsa love to you my beautiful friend!

  3. Sweetheart, keep your chin up! You are such a strong independent woman. I am so proud of you and what you are doing. It sure seems like it is hard, but I don't think anyone could be doing it better. Continue to be your most awesome self. Thinking of you...lotsa love to you my beautiful friend!