I’ve never been away from home this long. It has been an entire year since I or my husband have returned to our hometowns and seen our families in full. I was fortunate enough to have been visited in Europe by a few family members throughout the year; for my husband, who has lived in Europe for six years, this was his longest stint away from family ever.
This past Thursday, we ventured into the ice-riddled streets at the break of dawn, laden with suitcases full of heavy winter clothes and gifts, for our now annual trans-Atlantic crossing. After a horrible extended layover in Charles de Gaulle airport (has anyone ever had a non-horrible de Gaulle experience?) we landed in the similarly-iced metropolis of Montréal, Quebec. We will be in the province for two weeks, and then we fly to Knoxville, Tennessee to see my family for about two weeks. Since it will be difficult to find time to write, I will share snippets of our travels in short, themed installments.
Today’s Topics: subletting our apartment for the holidays, trying to speak French with Quebecers, and connecting to my young nieces despite the language barrier.
Food Pic du Jour: the much-anticipated Contrecoeur specialty breakfast pizza
Letting Strangers In
We have an amazing apartment in Geneva. We really lucked out, that this place was available when we needed it, was recently renovated, and had tons of space (for a European apartment). Although the rent was staggering when we first heard of it, the longer we spend in Geneva the more we notice other properties’ rents increasing, so that by the time we move out, our place will be considered quite a bargain for what we got. Still it’s a bit heartbreaking to think about shilling out for the month of December when we know we’re going to be gone for most of it. This year, we decided to try Airbnb.
I came across the website airbnb.com when I did some scouting for new apartments around the time of our lease termination. We hadn’t decided if we would renew yet or not, so I did some apartment hunting online. I kept running across pictures of nice places branded with a watermark for airbnb.com, so I looked into what that was. It turns out it is a global community of travelers, renters, and available apartments. You search for where you’re going, and it gives you lists of available properties that people have submitted.
We created a profile and listed our apartment, and within a few days we had several requests for more information. It took a little while to get the hang of using the site (it’s difficult to figure out how to set your calendar for when the apartment is available, and our initial requests were from people wanting to use it when we’d be there!) but I figured it out, and we soon had the perfect request: someone wanted to rent the place for the entire time we’d be gone. This meant we didn’t have to figure out how to swap the keys or get the apartment clean in between renters, which made the process so much easier.
However, we soon experienced some anxiety at the prospect of handing our place over to strangers. First of all, what were we to do with all of our personal stuff? It was sort of amazing, as we started cleaning out our shelves and closets, to realize how much we had made this place a home. I had managed to bring quite a lot over from the States over the course of 14 months, possessions that were sentimental and helped create the atmosphere of hominess that we both enjoyed. Moving everything out to make room for their stuff was an undertaking of epic proportions, truly akin to moving to a new location completely.
Secondly, who is this person that will be sleeping in our bed? Every airbnb.com user has a profile, but the person who contacted us was a new member, and so had no peer reviews or feedback of any sort. He was moving to Geneva, and so needed a base of operations from which to apartment hunt. He was coming for the holidays with his wife and four children from Costa Rica, so that they could get to know the city and hopefully find a place to live together.
It all seemed great and legitimate, but it’s a scary thing to let your house out to someone. You worry about damages and destruction. You don’t know how they live, if they’re clean or messy people, if they’re respectful and quiet or noisy and oblivious. You leave your neighbors at the mercy of chance, and your home in the hands of the unknown. Luckily we had a friend in town available to meet with them and give them a tour and the keys, so she was able to size them up and report back to us. And they turned out to be very lovely, in her opinion; they were who they claimed to be at the very least, which is definitely comforting when all your initial dealings are only through the internet. If this goes well, we’ll definitely do it again, and we’re already making some exciting travel plans with the extra windfall we’ve earned.
Learned French vs. Spoken French
I took French in high school and college. I took the equivalent of six years. I was in the French Honor Society and I was a first-year French teacher to a home-schooled girl. And when I married my native-French-speaking husband, I could barely say “My name is Jessica” in French.
I had a great base of knowledge buried deep in my brain somewhere, but it had been about five years since I had taken a class or given one, and since I never used it in my regular life, my expertise slowly deteriorated. I had loved my French classes, and I was excited at the prospect of using what I knew when I went to Paris in the summer of 2011. I found out soon enough that I had grossly overestimated my command of the language, but after falling in love with Mathieu, and meeting his exclusively French-speaking family, and then in turn moving to a French-speaking region, I knew I would need to restudy the language.
One thing I never realized in all my years of loving and studying French was how different French can be in the different countries in which it is spoken. French is one of the most widespread official languages in the world (English is the official language of 83 countries; French is in second place with 40 countries.) Somewhere along the line I assumed that the French spoken everywhere was the same French I learned. But when you think about it, even the English we speak in America is varied region to region, and that’s just within the same country. So of course countries separated by great distances have adapted the language to their own individuality. I found out quite quickly that almost my entire French background was out the window when confronted with the strong accents and pervasive slang that makes up the lexicon of Quebec French.
Because Quebec is surrounded by English-speakers, they have adopted some Anglicisms that many of them don’t even realize are originally English words. For example, they say “anyways” when moving a conversation along, and they use “c’mon” and “fuck off” as exasperations the same way Americans do. Their swear words are very interesting; they use church words as curse words. The French words for tabernacle and baptism are two of their worst swear words, similar to our “fuck” and “shit” presumably. In fact, they call their profanity “sacre,” which literally translates as “sacred.” It could stem from some rebellion against the ever-present Catholic Church in their province, but it’s very strange, as an outsider, to hear a person swear by saying “chalice” in French.
I’m doing better this year than I did last year when visiting his family. Living in a French-speaking country has certainly helped, even though Mathieu and I always speak English at home. My comprehension is better than my ability to communicate back, which means I can follow a conversation, I just can’t contribute to it as well as I’d like to. One of the biggest things about learning and living with a new language is learning how to share my personality in that language. I can understand a question posed to me, and respond to it, but it’s very difficult to inject my own style, my humor, or any type of individuality into my words. I’m trying so hard to just get the correct vocabulary, verb tense, and conjugation that if I spend any longer trying to be witty, the conversation will have moved on without me. Which leads me to the final topic of the day…
Mathieu’s sister has two girls, and is currently pregnant with a boy. My nieces are Juliette, 5, and Raphaelle, 2, and they both speak only French. Juliette is starting to learn a bit of English in her kindergarten class, but she’s not much past saying “hello” and counting to five. They are intrigued with me, Juliette especially, because I am like Dora the Explorer who, unlike in the States, speaks French as her main language and English as the exotic language in the Quebec version of the show. Raphaelle is a bit too young to notice that I’m not speaking her language.
My problem is, I want to get to know my nieces (and nephew eventually) and I want them to know me. I want them to like me, and think I’m cool and hip, and call me when they’re older and tell me secrets about boys they like and ask me my opinion on their clothes and let me turn them on to awesome music and my favorite films and books. And I’m hoping that by the time they’re of that age, my French will be fluent or their English will. But for now, I’m struggling with how to communicate with them. Certainly my French is good enough to be able to talk to a five-year-old for 10 minutes, but I again can’t express my personality very well.
We were watching a TV program about arctic animals, and a walrus with large tusks and a bushy mustache came on the screen. I wanted to say “I bet he would tickle your belly with that mustache!” but I couldn’t remember the verb for “tickle,” or the cute word for “belly” instead of “stomach,” so I just ended up saying “Look at that mustache!” which was much lamer. I get sad and frustrated sometimes that I can’t be myself yet in French, especially when the girls are involved. If I wait too long to improve my proficiency, I won’t be a novelty to them anymore; they will be just as frustrated that they can’t communicate with me, and so may stop trying. And I don’t want to lose the possibility of a lifelong friendship with them before it even begins.