Tuesday, April 2
Days of adjustment. I often travel alone and for extended periods of time. Yet, I forget how difficult the first week can be. My second day began with lashing rain, as the Irish call it, arriving for my first class at the Alliance Francaise bedraggled which aptly describes my understanding of French and my ability to communicate with the instructor, indeed, with the class.
I wonder why am I doing this? I will never master this language.
I consider my ancestors who landed in New York and had to do just that, master a foreign language and a foreign culture. They had relatives whom they joined, but each encoutered difficulties patching themselves into the fabric of America. My Greek grandfather eventually spoke, not fluently, seven languages but when he first stepped off the boat, English wasn’t one of them.
Efstadiou (Tom) Zinis and Germaine de Jorna with their children
My “French” grandmother probably had some English as Saint Lucia, from where she hailed, had been a British colony since 1832. Yet, she only spoke French with her sisters or her husband, my Greek grandfather, when they didn’t want the children to understand. What kind of French? The French of Paris or the patois of Saint Lucia?
My Irish grandmother came to the states at age 13 and refused to continue her education. She didn’t want anyone making fun of her brogue.
Here I am, a privileged American, trying to become part of my heritage, the holy land of France and I’m unable to converse with anyone or to even order food. I forget the importance of “politesse” that is, the polite way of interacting. I’m more a bull in a china shop. In the states, we don’t bother with greetings, with leavings when we are doing business. We get right to the point. “I want a coffee” instead of “Bon Jour Monsieur. Je voudrais un cafe, s’il vous plait.” “Good day sir. I would like a coffee if you please.” And always when leaving “Au Revoir or Bonne Journee.” “Good bye, have a good day.”
Confusion again. I stopped at the same cafe as yesterday and ordered a cafe allonge, that is an espresso with a pitcher of hot water to elongate it. This I understood, but what was I do with the green bottle of cold water and small glass placed on the table? I maximized my stay by using all the hot water and never touched the other or inquired about their purpose. Like my Irish grandmother, I wouldn’t risk being the object of a joke.
These small setbacks create feelings of isolation. So minimum but so heartfelt. What could my grandparents have experienced when Greeks were called “Dirty Greeks” and Irish faced “No dogs or Irish allowed?” Although perhaps, being American today is just as unseemly.