Remember that time when I was all like, “Yeah – you have to give to get, the more you put out the more you bring in, blah-freaking-blah-blah”? OK – most of the time, that’s true. But I think I’ve found my first exception.
Last weekend I had to attend an obligatory course on la vie en France – a full day learning about how the health system works, buying or renting a home, getting French citizenship, and getting a job. That last bit was particularly interesting. I learned that if a person has a degree, or a whole bunch of paid or voluntary experience in a particular field, France will often honor that background by giving said person a French equivalent degree or qualification, thereby making it much easier for employers to find an immigrant appropriately qualified for a post.
Excellent, I thought. Sign me up!
So I made an appointment with the lady who handles that for our region. At first I thought Chris would definitely need to go with me, but after speaking with her over the phone, I decided I could hack it alone…she was nice, spoke slowly, and obviously was accustomed to dealing with foreigners like yours truly, so we’d be OK.
And we were…at first. The meeting was for 9:30. Owing to the fact that I didn’t really understand what she’d said over the phone the day before about where exactly her office was, I was about 5 minutes late. After having asked three people where I should be going (they hadn’t a clue), and finally arriving at the office, it occurred to me that those were the directions she’d given me over the phone. Communication in French is like that for me sometimes.
Still, she was super nice, and the meeting began. As I say, it started out just fine. I was following her, she was following me, and we were progressing. But it was a long meeting. As in really long. Even in my native tongue, a 2-1/2 hour meeting would be hard to get through…but in French?
Here’s what happened: At about 10:45, it occurred to me that I had no idea what she’d been saying for the past five minutes. It also occurred to me that my brain was aching. Not in a headache kind of way. It hurt the way a muscle hurts after a long workout. The way it used to hurt when Mr. Wilson tried desperately to help me understand Chemistry in high school (which never, incidentally, bore fruit, but boy, was Mr. Wilson a nice guy for trying).
All of a sudden, making the words make sense felt like folding my brain over itself…kneeding it like so much dough. I wanted to yawn. Oh, how I wanted to yawn! But I couldn’t yawn…that would’ve been rude. So i pinched my leg. Hard. Several times. I hope she didn’t see me wince.
This went on for 45 excrutiating minutes, effectively slowing our already-snail’s pace meeting down to molasses-in-the-wintertime speed. I had to answer her questions, so I had to understand what she was saying. I couldn’t just nod and say, “Ouai,” every few minutes. I had to give real information. Additionally, I was painfully aware of what an incredible service this is, and the fact that I didn’t have to pay a penny for her help. I knew I owed it not just to her, but to myself, to make the most of the meeting.
But it hurt!
Well, gentle reader, did putting forth all this energy mean that I did suddenly start to understand? That my hard work and perseverence paid off? Nay! Nothing of the sort! The kneeding of my brain / pinching of my leg / asking of questions / struggling against that cruel yawn tickling at the back of my throat continued until the end.
As she walked me out of the office, I had the distinctive impression that I must have looked high. Eye contact was severely impaired, and in my struggle not to collapse into a deep slumber right there on the corridor floor, I’m sure I seemed…let’s say far-away. We shook hands and parted, but I was knackered for the rest of the day.
I know – I know. This will pay off in the longer term. Maybe. Not sure. I do know for sure that I walked away having understood exactly nothing from the last 45 minutes of the meeting. Perhaps it was more a test of my ability to be polite and feign engagement rather than a test of my understanding of French. Whatever the case, here I am, 9:00 the next day, and my brain still hurts.
Worth it in terms of sorting out my degree in France? Definitely. Worth it in terms of improving my handle on the French language? Not so sure.