Le lingua franca

WARNING:  Internal monolouge, cycling jokes, misspelled French words, and attempts at philosophy.*

“Bonjour! Je voudrais acheter l’abonnment mensulle pour les junoires, si vous plaits,” I confidently ask the smiling man behind the counter at the Geneva transport office. Hi! I would like to buy the monthly youth bus pass, please.

“Ah, Ok!” the clerk answers, oddly enthused. I’m delighted beyond all reason that he understood me. My joy, however ends here, as he then launches into an emphatic string of French words that all blend together.

Due to a childhood (as well as, an, umm, young adulthood) spent mimicking accents for my own comic enjoyment, I have developed a knack for pronunciation. Unfortunately this can lead to severe miscalculation on the part of the poor people whom I attempt to speak to. Basically, for about five seconds, I can convincingly sound like I speak French. Beyond that, I’m absolutely hopeless.

Queue the reply of shame: “Ahh, je suis desolé. Je ne parles pas tré bien frances. Je comprends pas. Je suis desolé…”

I’m sorry, I don’t really speak French well. I don’t understand. Languages with actual grammatical structure allude me. the clerk, however, is unphased. He smiles again and, like the good European transit office man that he is, flows seemlessly into English. Strangely enough, I’m not embarrassed or angry. I am perturbed by the fact that I feel, quite actually, relieved. I’ve only been self learning French for two weeks after all. So it begins, again.

Self learning this time involves mostly doing what I can with the time and energy that I have. For the first few days, my largely cycling based knowledge of French got me by:

“Hors Service?” Well, ‘Hors,’ which I know is not pronounced ‘whores,’ is what the ‘H’ in an ‘H catégorie’ climb stands for, and that means the mountain is so hard it’s without a category. So, ‘hors’=without. Ah! Out of service! that’s why it won’t print me a bus ticket!

“tête?” Well, tête du course is the overall race leader. Aha! It means ‘head!’

“Allez?” Just like my old Specialized! I know that one, it means “go!” Still it’s a little creepy that that guy yelled it at me as I jogged by…

“Etage?” Well etape means stage, like a stage of le tour. Since I’m staring athe elevator right now, I’m gonna gues that etage is floor. A floor is sorta like a stage. this language is easy!

Mon éducation en frances has continued rather passively: I read all the signs I see pass by as I’m riding the tram to CERN (reading French is a thousand times easier than speaking it), I watch “Les Simpson” on tv as I’m trying to fall asleep the morning after a night shift. Of course, I only watch “Les Simpson” if I don’t get distracted by “Malcom Mittendrin” (auf Duetsch, die ich verstehe besser als Französisch) or any litany of ridiculous British programs first. Really though, French. I’m working on it. I’ve even been out to Google translate a few times.
However, there is a certain allure to the idea of really being able to communicate with people here, of course. It’s inspiring to see a Physicist whom I know is Danish, or Colombian, or Italian, or Brasilian, and who just spent the last 20 minutes speaking to me in near perfect English, pick up the phone to order Hélium or to ask for the beam in French. I’d, personally, just like to be able to buy my bus pass.

At the same time, I’m aware that fluency in another language requires selling part of your soul. Learning a language is essentially the conscious or unconcious devotion of a corner of the mind to a different mode of expression, a different sensibility, and a different form of the self. We all know that no word in any language has a direct path to identidy or meaning, after all, mankind invented language in order to be able to lie, right? Words instead refract meaning, and each language sends the same incident thought off at a slightly different angle. Multilingualism fractionates perception, but enriches the whole experience allstå. See what I mean.

I’m just not so sure I’m ready to sell part of my soul to French. In all honesty, French wasn’t next on my hit list. Or really even on it. Now that it’s a necessity, I’ve decided to do what I can while I’m here. But I’ve resigned to doing just that. I am not going to let myself mind speaking English.

Before I leave the transit office, the friendly clerk asks me if I want a map of the bus lines. Feeling like at this point, I’ve already figured out what I need to know, I say no thanks. Non, Merci beaucoup!

“Ahhh, Genevé. She is but a small village, yes? ” he replies.

Oui. She is, she is. Un petit village.


* Yes, I am absolutely stealing the “Content Warning” (as well as the footnoting) from Alia Salim, also known as the most poetic person on the internet.


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