I’ll be honest: Before I left for Rome and Barcelona, I was feeling pretty pessimistic about my ability to speak French. I was listening to myself stumble over my words in every verbal interaction I had, saying “Comment?” (“What? Repeat?”) just as often. I was experiencing that intense frustration of creating a thought and not being able to express it in words. In my mind, every conversation was an oral exam that I was barely passing. Talk about putting pressure on myself.
Then I was in Rome. As my boyfriend Matt and I were looking for our friend’s apartment, we stopped inside a small cosmetic store to ask for directions. This is what I thought in my head: “Where are we? We’re trying to go here on the map.” I thought it in English. I thought it in French. And I realized I didn’t know any of those words, not a single one, in Italian. I settled on using gestures, and we received a similar response giving us directions. I’ve experienced a language barrier every day since January 27, but this was more than that — this was a barricade.
The situation almost repeated itself in Barcelona. This time I was alone, looking for my hostel, and I stopped inside a small convenience store. “Hola,” I said, and then stopped. I knew no more Spanish.
The cashier looked at me. “Espanol?”
I shook my head.
“Oui!” I was so excited. “Oui, je parle français!” I speak French! I speak French.
As he gave me the directions in French, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief, for two reasons: First, it was getting late and I really wanted to find my hostel. But more importantly, French had suddenly become a familiar thing in a lonely, completely foreign country. It was a taste of home — and home had just become France.
I couldn’t wait to speak French again. (I talked to my French neighbor on the bus back for almost two hours.) And my confidence has improved since I’ve come back. I still stumble, and I still can’t understand everything or express everything, but I don’t feel so frustrated that there’s so much I can’t say. I feel grateful that there’s so much I can.