A breakthrough, finally

June 30, 2009 at 11:58 PM | Posted in Musings, Paris 2009 | Leave a comment

Well, my French class is over, and now I am on my own language-wise.  So I have decided that my office, and my social life, and Paris itself are my own personal language labs.  This means that I can fully justify sitting for an hour or so at lunch–after all, it’s studying!

Yesterday was my first full day at the office, since I have been spending the mornings at French class and the afternoons at work.  I forgot how wonderful the office environment is.  Everyone gathers in the little cafeteria room with their lunches and chats for 45 minutes to an hour.  Last year I went every day but I really didn’t know what was going conversation-wise on unless someone whispered to me what they were talking about.  Already this year, I notice a big difference.  People start off talking to me in English because they think that I won’t understand French, and it’s a pleasant surprise for them when I can answer them in French and get the gist of their response.  This also means that I can pick up on more of the lunchtime conversation among the employees in the research unit.  It doesn’t hurt that the conversation is usually centered around either food or epidemiology–two topics on which I have a reasonable vocabulary!

Last night a few people from work went out for dinner to say goodbye to Kim, a French doctoral student who splits her time between the French study and a similar study in London (that study is called Whitehall).  The evening was a big challenge for me, because while some people spoke some English, I knew that 95% of the conversation was going to be in French.  Indeed it was–and not only did I understand what was going on, but I could actually add to the conversation (a bit).  It felt like a real breakthrough for me, and a situation in which I could not have really participated a week ago.  I am also noticing that some things are coming more easily, although I am far from being able to conjugate irregular verbs on the fly and remember which words are feminine and which masculine.

One funny thing I have noticed is that I can understand most of what two other people are talking about, but as soon as someone talks directly to me, I all of a sudden freeze or can’t understand what they are saying.  From what I have heard, this is quite common.  It’s a mind switch from absorbing to listening–coupled with the sudden anxiety of having to produce a response–that often takes me by surprise.

And after six or seven nights in a row of getting home at 11pm or later, I am officially exhausted!  Time to turn off this documentary about Charles de Gaulle and go to bed–bonne nuit.  Thankfully it has cooled down a bit tonight–it’s been in the high 80s this week, and so far the only places I’ve found that are air-conditioned to the level we have in the US (meaning that it’s cool enough for your clothes to not be stuck to you when you stand up) are movie theaters and the freezer sections of supermarkets.  I don’t miss many food things from the U.S., but one thing I really miss on a day like today is iced coffee.  Except at Starbucks, it’s pretty much nonexistent here–maybe because ice itself is an extremely scarce commodity.  So sad!

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