Vous Venez d’Ou?

One of the most interesting things about working in the largest mall in the United States* is the diversity of tourists who wander the halls. Most are from other parts of the country (I can always peg the Minnesotans, Wisconsinites, and Chicagoans), but some are from overseas. A few are francophones. Once, during the holiday rush, I walked through a whole transaction in French. Lately, though, I’ve wondered about the good in doing that. I figure, if the customers are struggling in English, I can step in in French, but most of them (probably most people who choose to tour Philadelphia) either manage just fine in English or are clearly students on some kind of exchange. This last type always reminds me of my own months on exchange in France, when strangers lapsing into English signaled to me that my French wasn’t adequate.**

These days my French is rusty around the edges—embarrassingly so, given how readily I once could converse in a second language***—and in the last few weeks I’ve had several encounters with (non-francophone) people who’ve been surprised that I speak a lick of French at all.**** Mostly, I need practice, any excuse to train my ear back to a sense of comfort with the language. And these days the desire to scrape off the rust is marked by a sense of urgency, since I’m going to France and Switzerland in September to translate a trip for Presbyterian Women.

Last evening, two women came into Ten Thousand Villages and after a split-second I realized they were speaking French, chatting about the jewelry they liked. I listened (okay, eavesdropped), trying to decide whether to reveal that I knew what they were saying, to offer to help in French. Then one of them turned and addressed me in English. I’d lost my window. We conducted our business in English, and I tried not to react to the sweet sisterly teasing between the two women, that took place in a language I was not supposed to understand.

From the point of view of Ten Thousand Villages, the interaction was a success (sale!), but I regretted missing the opportunity to say out loud what I was translating in my head. Because even though I didn’t say anything in French, my mind was working out what they were saying, and how I would respond in my second language. It was a long way from speaking without simultaneously translating, but as I listened to myself uttering sentences that sounded strange in English (“that, on the other hand, is made from coconut,” a phrase meant for one of my favorite French prepositional phrases, par contre), I knew the French was still in me somewhere, its cadence still thumping away in my chest, ready whenever I need it.

* Largest in terms of retail square footage. As a Midwesterner I’m obligated to stay true to the Mall of America.
** On the other hand, once a vendor at a Parisian market asked if I was Quebecoise.
*** See comment about being mistaken for a French Canadian.
**** These encounters usually trigger existential crises. Hell, for several years I had trouble speaking straight English, and “francophone” and “Francophile” were my top two identity traits.

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