Last week, in the wee hours of the morning, I headed off to the train station to make my way to Clermont-Ferrand, where l’Office français d’immigration et integration, aka the OFII, had ordained that I and a couple hundred other immigrants to this fine country should take our test of the French language. It was still dark outside as I half-walked, half-ran to the station – and not because I was late, but because it was so freaking cold. The streets were bare save for one truck shooting salt out onto the pavement and another picking up garbage. Just me and the streetlights and that most silent part of the day, before the world has kicked into gear. Then – at volume:
Criminey. I nearly peed myself. It was M, a former classmate – Ukranian – making her way the same direction. We did that penguiney power-shuffle together the rest of the way, not talking much as our faces were buried in our scarves. At the door of the station was M2 – Romanian – and Y – Chinese, the former waiting for M and the latter for me, both of them standing with hands shoved deeply in pockets and chins tucked deeply in scarves. It was not warm.
The way the tests work is a bit of a pain. There were actually two tests being given Wednesday: the DELF A1 and the DELF A2. I took the A1 in May last year, so I was there for the A2 this time around. Some of my classmates are doing the A1, others the A2, and still others will take the DILF, a beginner-level test, in Le Puy-en-Velay. The test is in two parts, comprising four competencies. The first part is an oral exam. We introduce ourselves, then deliver a monologue, then have a role-play with the examinatrice for a dialogue. The second part is written, and tests our written and oral comprehension, and ability to produce written material. The whole of the test lasts about 2 hours, but owing to the number of people being tested, we’ve got to be there the whole day.
I didn’t imagine I’d see so many of my classmates, and since Y was taking the A1, I’d planned on spending the day walking the streets of Clermont Ferrand, which is really a lovely town. That, however, didn’t pan out, as M2 was also taking the A2, and begged me to wait for her after I finished my oral exam. Meh. No biggie.
Y called just as noon approached – Where were we? Y’s French is basic…heretofore she’s communicated mostly by saying the first part of things and then making this really super cute distressed look, during which the person with whom she’s communicating starts throwing out ideas of what she’s trying to say until they nail it and they know because the furrow between her eyebrows instantly transforms into the most sparkly smile – no cash prize could be a better reward. Consequently, phone conversations are challenging.
“Are you hungry?” Yes. “OK – we’re in the center – ” Hold on. “Ann?” There’s M. Y’d lost her nerve. I give our coordinates and we agree to meet for lunch.
This all sounds so simple, but it’s really quite frightening. The everyday stuff becomes just that – stuff we do every day. But traveling two hours from home without a family member by our side is not something we do every day. We do not get given several hours to while away a brisk winter’s day in a town we don’t know – incidentally whilst we’re too broke to properly enjoy it. We don’t go out to eat for a number of reasons. But there we sat, having a meal together in the restaurant, just as normal as you like.
During the second part of the test my phone rings. Expletive, I think, my eyes shifting with my head down, hoping that the big auditorium and the broken vent that’s been annoying the crap out of all of us will throw everyone off the scent of who forgot to put their phone on silent. It was Y. I ring her back after class – she’s already at the station, having finished her oral exam and having had no clue what to do with herself thereafter. M2’s with me, and M isn’t answering her phone. We’re also with H – Greek – and her friend C – Malagasy (that means she’s from Madagascar. Maybe you knew that. I didn’t). Off we go to the station, where we learn that we’ve got half an hour before the next train arrives. We decide to pop to the cafe for a coffee.
A woman is sitting at a nearby table and gathers her things to leave. Just as she’s about to walk away, she turns on her heel and walks back to us.
“Am I correct in thinking that you’re all studying French?” I explain that we’ve just taken our tests, that we’re all immigrants. “I just want to commend you – French isn’t easy, and it’s wonderful that you’re learning the language.” I’m floored…that never happens here. Firstly, the French aren’t all lovey-duvey like Americans; secondly, the French aren’t known for telling a whole bunch of immigrants how great they are.
M comes rushing to the station just as we’re stamping our tickets and making our way onto the train. Then off we go, back to Le Puy, chatting the entire way home. Y gets motion sickness, though, and when we get back to town, her bike’s had its front wheel stolen. I run off to call her a cab and the day is done. This day that was full of pretty unremarkable things, but was nothing less than a series of extraordinary victories for each one of us.
Monday was Y’s last day at class. She brought Ferrero-Rochers for everybody and made her way around the class giving kisses to all the students and the teacher before she left (three here, so it takes a while). At the break I said to her, “Now you’d better keep practicing your French! You call me and we’ll go out for a coffee together! No hanging out with only your Chinese friends!” She replied, “I don’t have any Chinese friends.”
As we were walking the same way, I decided to wait for her. Her husband was outside. It was the first time I’d met him, because he works six days a week in a town two hours away, so he’s only home one day a week. He’s been living in France for ten years and doesn’t speak any French at all. Y’s been here for seven, and the day I met her, we made this same walk together. It was so awkward…all she could do was frown that frown, shrug her shoulders, looking so apologetic to the stupid American lady that couldn’t get it through her thick skull that she didn’t understand a freaking word coming out of her mouth.
Monday was different.
She told me that she and her husband will be moving back to Paris – I didn’t even realize they’d lived there before. She told me how long she’d been in Le Puy, how much she loved it and what she found difficult about it. She told me how she met her husband (he was her Parisian landlord’s nephew), and how their respective in-laws have only met them on Skype. Her husband watched her in awe…so impressed. At one point he said something to her in Chinese and though I speak neither Mandarin nor Cantonese, I know for certain that what he said was: “You’re speaking so much French!” His eyes gleamed with pride.
When we came back to class, Y wasn’t there anymore. Now she has to make her way in the grand, méchant monde without somebody there three days a week to correct her pronunciation and conjugation. But if I didn’t appreciate my teacher before (and I did – I really did), I certainly do now. I told her what happened.
“You did that. Y can communicate now, and it’s because of you.” She blushed. She’s super modest.
“Oh, no – she did it.” But we both know the gift they give us every day. Communication is the greatest power there is. Ergo, it’s lack is complete and utter powerlessness. If there are few things more frightening and anxiety-producing than not understanding or being understood, there are also few achievements more thrilling and exhilarating than conquering a new language. Nobody’s saying we’re reading Molière and singing Piaf just yet, but we’re getting closer. We’re getting closer.