Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Going Local

It will soon be four years that we've lived in Geneva. When we arrived, the girls had been one and three years old respectively and Mighty Mouse, the youngest, had been sick. I, myself, had been recovering from every '-itis' known to man. Unlike Captain Kirk, who had spent most of his life in bilingual Montreal, I spoke just enough French to get through the grocery store unscathed. But, when we made the decision to come, it was with the intent to live here, meaning we planned to integrate and, as much as possible, live like locals.

As you can well imagine, this was no easy feat. I can't tell you how many times people frowned as I tried to speak French or switched to English to put us out of our collective misery. But I persevered. I came to know the shopkeeper at the Corsier boulangerie and the vendors at the Friday marché. Like so many locals, they all spoke a smattering of English, but I stubbornly stuck to French and invited them to correct me. I scanned the Corsier phone book to find a doctor for me and a vet for Honey, disregarding the well-intended recommendations from other expats of professionals who spoke English. I knew if I had the choice to speak my mother tongue, I would. I secretly prayed that neither Honey nor I would become acutely ill before my French came up to par.

Don't get me wrong--I didn't shun the expatriate community. On the contrary, they were my life line. Spouses of my husband's English-speaking colleagues became fast friends. I knew if I ever got in a pinch they would be there to help me, no questions asked. They recommended bilingual play groups for the girls and took me to those first doctors' appointments so I wouldn't have to risk getting lost. On my own, I sought out the Geneva Writers' Group, the Library in English and the Geneva English Drama Society. Knowing that I could come up for some 'anglo' air every once in a while was an immeasurable comfort.

When it came time for Emma, my oldest, to start school, we considered the private English schools in the area, but, in the end, chose the local school in Corsier. Had we stayed in Canada, we would have, at the very least, sent our girls to an immersion program where the majority of instruction would have been given in French. While this simplified our decision, it didn't make it easy. Emma was intensely shy and reluctant to speak. She chewed holes through the cuffs of her shirts for the first five weeks. In Canada, she would have had the respite of speaking English on the play ground, but not here.

It wasn't easy for me either. At 11:30 each day I joined the other mothers in the school yard who, too, were waiting to bring their children home for lunch. For months, their rapid-fire French swarmed beyond my slow comprehension. On parents night, I could barely understand the teacher. When notes were sent home, I had to break out my dictionary every single time. It was lonely and frustrating and incredibly slow to change--but it did.

Emma received extra tutorials at school along with some other non-francophones. I signed up for French lessons, even learning the slippery subjonctif! I read my first novel in French, le Petit Prince, and then my second, Oscar et la dame rose. But, most importantly, I made friends--locals who were patient enough to speak slowly, listen carefully, and let me into their world. For them, I am so grateful.

Going local isn't for everyone. It takes an incredible amount of time and patience. Would I have done the same if the language had been Hindi or Cantonese? Good question. After almost four years I can't say I'm truly 'there'. I might never be. Like so many things in life, it's a journey, not a destination. I'm just glad I got on the bus.

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