(Cliquez ici pour lire cet article en français.)
Earlier this month, on January 6th, the Frustrated Nester family enthusiastically took part in one of our favourite traditions: la Galette des Rois.
You’ve probably spotted that this is not a Scottish tradition. But it is definitely one of our traditions, which my children get excited about every year, and which, like Burns Night, or Pancake Day, or Halloween, I feel lacking in some way if I haven’t marked the occasion – just like I now feel about the Dannebrog (Danish flag) at birthdays, or aebleskiver at Christmas.
One of the thrills of expat life, for me, is discovering the new cultural influences that are going to play a part in my life going forward, as well as uncovering the unseen influences of my ‘home’ culture. But after seven years of francophone living – four years in France and three in Congo – that French cultural influence is stronger than any other, more than I’ll ever be influenced by Danishness, I’m sure. So much so that I’ve started to think of it as my Version Française.
When we left Congo I thought I would be saying adieu to my VF. After years of immersion, and a time when I discovered the joy of being able to use a second language just as comfortably as my mother tongue, I was sure I was going to miss my francophone life. When we got to Denmark I found the French-speaking Facebook network, and was determined to find a tutor to help my children keep their bilingual status – or as close as possible. None of that quite worked out, with the older one especially relieved to leave the hard slog of French schooling behind him, and relax into learning in his mother tongue.
But I did find myself in a Danish class half-populated by French speakers, including the Danish teacher herself, so we would enthusiastically chat en français when the Danish got too tricky. More French families started to arrive in Esbjerg, and I became an unofficial translator at spouse meetings. With new French classmates, my younger son gained a renewed enthusiasm for using his French, asking me for lessons, so we started trying to schedule regular francophone time at home.
A year after moving to Denmark, though, I got a request out of the blue that launched me fully back into my VF mode. Our aforementioned Danish teacher is such a francophile that she is the president of her local branch of Alliance Française, and she invited me to deliver a talk to the group about our life in Congo.
At first, the default imposter syndrome took over, and I thought, oh, that’s a shame, she’s totally overestimated my abilities. Then I kicked out the inner critic, and realised that with enough planning and time for translation, I could easily be ready for this. (I’ll admit it helped when I learned that hardly anyone in the group was actually French – the audience were less likely to be scrutinising my subjonctif!)
The process had me settling comfortably back into my VF, and I realised I could finally meet that sidelined goal of actually writing and even publishing in French.
So what does my Version Française mean to me? It’s being able to speak the language – but a lot more besides.
I vividly remember that as we came to the end of our first three years in France, I was ready to see the back of all that Frenchness. It had been our first international experience, and I had held on too much to the differentness of it. For various reasons I was cautious of letting go of the idea that ‘home’ was the place I had come from, cautious of assimilating any alternative. I had tired myself out by focussing on the differences being ‘not normal’.
Three years later we were leaving France for the second time, and moving on to Congo. I’d already experienced the change of perspective that happens when you return to a place. The town I’d had my fill of the first time we left, instantly became familiar, somewhere that felt like home, from the first day we arrived. I knew the streets, the language, the culture, and felt stronger and more powerful because of it. I spent much of our second time in France practising my social French, knowing that I would have to uplevel, to be an expat among expatriées, rather than the English-speaking social circles we moved in in France itself.
In Congo, I relaxed into the process of my French going from functional to fully fluent. I still had days where I would want to give my brain a rest, but most of the time speaking French felt like something familiar and comfortable, and I came to feel at home in the language. So now, if I get one of those days when I can’t take another word of Danish on my radar, I can retreat to French as well as to English.
There’s nothing like the pleasure of having a learned a language to the point where it’s no longer a barrier to the people, the culture, functioning in daily life.
Understanding France, Not Just French
It’s not just the language that feels like home though, it’s the culture too. When I go back to France, or speak to a new French acquaintance, I get it. When we went to Copenhagen recently, and our (very chic, artistic) Airbnb host recommended a French restaurant not too far away, I jumped at the chance. Phoning to make the reservation, MT automatically switched to speaking French without even thinking about it – which turned out to be a great advantage, since we got a table, even though their website didn’t show availability. L’Education Nationale in the Latin Quarter could have been a bistro in any French city – it reminded me of a Lyonnais bouchon – and as I glanced at the menu I just knew what I was doing, and how to order, and what to pick from the wine list, and I relished every moment of it.
In Congo, I did have English-speaking friends, and they were definitely my lifeline during my time there. But I felt like I had a special magic power that many of them didn’t, in that I could put a foot in both camps, socialising with the French and the other expats, moving between the two circles effortlessly. When my English-speaking friends started a regular Friday sundowner session, I already had one with my French neighbours, which I couldn’t bear to give up, it felt so much like home.
The Music of a Learned Language
And there’s a new type of nostalgia I’ve discovered from having a Version Française. Because there are phrases that I learned for the first time in certain contexts, they have become like music to me. Hearing them triggers memories of that first time, the people who were with me, the person who spoke the words, the way their meaning was explained to me – so the meaning of the words has been unravelled for me, yes, but also a new level of meaning and memory, that is only mine, and only has meaning for me. It’s a way that my VF has grafted itself well and truly into my soul.
My Gallic Shrug
Finally, there’s the fact that my VF is just, well, a different version of me. There are still days or situations where using English feels like the only way to express the true me, but there is disinhibition in speaking another language. In French, I am less British, less inclined to apologise or equivocate. I can be more direct, and certainly more exigeante. God help the fonctionnaire who is under the impression they can’t solve my problem when I am in full VF mode. My VF seems to give me permission to not need to be liked. Ça vous plait pas? Bof.
So, it’s time to commit to that declaration on my Instagram bio of ‘francophone’. Expect to see a bit more French from me. If you read French, check for a new tab on the blog, where I’ll add some French translations of previous posts, and include my francophile musings.
Claiming Space in a Second Language
Confession time: one reason I’ve hesitated to write in French in the past is because of my own reaction to seeing bloggers write in English when it’s not their mother tongue – yes, I’ve been ever-so-judgey of those grammatical errors, and phrasing that doesn’t flow naturally. I shudder now to admit to that snobbery. Just because a language isn’t used intuitively, doesn’t mean it isn’t a valid expression of the writer’s voice. I now have a bonus voice. I’ve chosen not to have my French blog translations proofed by a French speaker, because, although I know that my French writing doesn’t have the natural flow of a native speaker, I’m confident that it’s my voice. As I noted here, there’s freedom in letting your additional language voice still be your own voice, influenced by the cadences and accent of your mother tongue. That’s how I’ll keep it authentic.
If you’re at all the Pinterest type (which I am only sporadically, until it starts to take over my procrastination time and I delete the app, again) I’ve added a Version Française board. And of course, I couldn’t write this without making sure to post it in glorious VF too! Cliquez ici pour lire en français.
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