I love coming home at night to the smell of burned out candles. It’s a smell I’ve always loved – it used to remind me of birthdays, but now it reminds me of my apartment in Paris. The candle smell comes from my neighbors on the first floor (reminder, in France, the first floor is the first floor above ground level) who are a male pair of interior decorators who do quite a bit of entertaining. Every time they have a dinner or party or festivity of any kind, we enter and exit the building by candlelight.
Tonight I got home after the candles had been blown out, and the only reminders of the evening were the still-smoking white candles lining the courtyard and first floor staircase. I was coming home from a movie, trying to make the most of the Printemps du Cinéma promotion that ended today. For whatever reason, the Fédération Nationale des Cinémas Français organizes this three-day period each spring (possibly beginning just last year), during which all movies at all theatres all over France cost only 3.50 per person. Determined to maximize my benefit, I saw a movie all three nights.
Tonight it was Les Témoins, a movie about a group of people in Paris in 1984 who are affected by the “new virus,” or AIDS. It’s been receiving great reviews in the French press, and it really was a good movie. Even better than the movie, was the fact that I realized that I really have no trouble understanding French. For whatever reason, comprehension has always come naturally to me – I’m nowhere near the same level with my writing and speaking, but I feel like I understand fluently. Sciences Po lectures are no problem, and I often find myself translating or repeating for other exchange students. Realizing that I was following the complicated story of how the disease was passed and dealt with by this group of people (not to mention, the complicated ways in which everybody was involved with one another) was just the confirmation I needed.
At one point the girl next to me leaned over to ask “Wait, what excited her?” And I found myself quickly explaining that these two people are married with a baby but maintain an open relationship, which until now, only the wife had taken advantage of. The scene dealt with the husband asking about her sex life and how she’d feel about hearing that he’d gotten some of his own. Turns out, it excited her. The response of my neighbor? “Wow, I did not get that at all.”
Even when I was here on a month-long exchange in high school, I was always introduced by my host family as “Our little American – who will understand everything you say.” It’s frustrating though, being able to understand everything that’s going on around me and feel so limited in expressing myself. I get along fine in day-to-day life, but put me in a discussion about politics and I can nod along without ever being able to express my views as eloquently as I’d like to be able to. I constantly feel like I have to justify myself when speaking to French students – I’m smarter in English, I swear.
In a way, it’s fitting that I am a nanny to an almost three-year old boy learning two languages. I feel like we’re in the same boat, trying to figure out how to express ourselves in the right way that we’ll be understood. We both confuse French and English words sometimes, and both get frustrated when we can’t get our points across. Though Georges tends to start laughing when I say “What? What? I have no idea what you are saying to me Georges,” while I get more flustered and less able to communicate clearly.
Other times though, I communicate too well in French. Today leaving a brutal breakdancing class, I was walking out with another girl, both of us complaining in French about how sore we’d be tomorrow. (If you want an idea of just how sore my wrists and shoulders are going to be tomorrow, check out the following video – we were working on air flares).
After a full hour of supporting our full body weights on our hands, we were walking to the metro together moaning things like, Alors, mes poignets! and Je ne pourrai pas lever les bras demain! (Ah, my wrists! And, I won’t be able to lift my arms tomorrow!) when she apparently caught a glimpse of the label on my REI rain coat and switched to English – “Oh, you’re from America?” I confirmed, and we laughed at ourselves for a minute before continuing to bemoan our worn out bodies. Just before parting ways at the metro, I asked what part of the U.S. she comes from.
As happens in strange countries a good deal more than you’d expect it to, the answer was “Oh, Seattle.” It turns out she’s actually from Vashon Island, a ten-minute ferry ride from my hometown of Tacoma and is in Paris working on her Master (more like general grad school in France). How funny is the world that a Tacoma girl can go to a hip-hop class in the 12ème arrondissement of Paris and learn after three sessions of toprock and six-steps that she’s practicing her freezes next to girl from Vashon? This is why I love this city.