Not speaking French here isn’t merely a social handicap but also a psychological one. In English, I like to think, I am a rather sane and ordinary fellow. In French I am a weirdo. I do all kinds of strange things here that I wouldn’t dream of doing back home, and most of them are simply a response to my linguistic ineptitude.
For example, instead of saying what I want to say, I often find myself saying whatever I happen to be able to say, even if it isn’t true. The need to get to the end of a French sentence that I’ve recklessly started without knowing how to finish is turning me into one of those pathological liars who invents a Vietnam War record for himself. The other day I found myself in one of my spastic little conversations with the man who runs the hardware store, who had asked my personal history. Behind me French women eavesdropped, amused by the murder of their language. Suddenly, without warning, I ran out of both verb tenses and pronouns. Panicked, I closed the books on my life story and said simply that I grew up in New Orleans, which is true, and that I lived there still, which isn’t. Now, of course, every time I turn up in his shop he wants to know more about my life in New Orleans.
That is only one of the lies I am now forced to remember as I walk the streets of our charming neighborhood. The woman at the bakery thinks my 8-month-old daughter is a boy. The butcher thinks I’m a poet and that my works are translated into French. Our next-door neighbor believes me to have a deep interest in the letters of Christopher Columbus. (She’s written a book on the subject, which I now have to read.) The woman who cuts my hair, who, like half the women in France is fanatically attached to Paul Auster’s novels or, at least, the photograph on the back of Paul Auster’s dust jacket or, at the very least, to the fact that Paul Auster speaks beautiful French, thinks Paul Auster is a close friend of mine. Now she wants to meet him!
On and on it goes. It is stressful telling so many lies. I can’t keep track of them.
And so in response to one weird pattern of behavior (lying all the time), I find myself adopting another: hiding from people who might force me to lie, i.e., people who might want to talk French to me when my brain is not ready for French. For instance, I now walk past the all-hours market next door, head down, without saying hello to the man who runs the store, Tariq. Tariq is the first person I met here. I was grateful to him for embracing me in such a neighborly way. For the first week or so we went out of our way to greet each other in the most elaborate possible fashion. I was “working on my French”; he was humoring me. In the second week, we both became bored with our ritual, as it involved the same phrases over and over again. A cursory “ça va?” and we moved on. Now I catch myself trying to hurry by, hoping he will not see me.
Of course, when you live in France, it is impossible to hide from all the people who might care to speak French. Thus I have discovered yet another pathological social device: Turn every conversation into a game of charades. Listening to rapid-fire French requires a very great effort. A few hours into each day I run out of gas and begin to respond not to French words but to French gestures. Given the context you can usually guess what they are trying to say. The incomprehensible questions in French from the grocery store cashier? Probably she has asked me if I would like a plastic bag and how I intend to pay. I say “oui” and hand her cash.
It is surprisingly easy to slide into reading other people’s body language instead of listening to their actual words. This evening I found myself in a restaurant. The waiter came by and asked if he could clear the empty glass on the table—or at least that’s what I guessed he was trying to say. I nodded. Then he left, without taking the glass, and returned with a refill. There ensued the usual confusion that follows whenever I lose the game of charades and have to wake up and listen to the words.
The thing was, I was in New York City. I arrived this morning, for a couple of days visit. The waiter had been speaking English.