I don’t speak French fluently—not by any stretch of the imagination—but I have spent two semesters in intensive French courses. I graduated from the niveau supérieur in May with a pretty good grade (if I do say so myself), and my French family has even noted how much progress I’ve made in recent months. Just this weekend, one of my sisters-in-law remarked how much better I now comprehend naturally-spoken French … something about how they don’t have to slow down and talk to me at half-speed anymore.
Nevertheless, if you’ve ever lived abroad while being “short of fluent” in the host country’s language, you know how exhausting it is to be immersed in that language non-stop. The point comes when you just can’t process it anymore. You space out, the words just become background noise, and your brain takes off to another place where everything’s in English. I call it the saturation point, and it happened to me this weekend.
Saturday started with an hour-and-a-half drive to Picardy with two of my sisters-in-law and my youngest niece … speaking French. (Michel was with his brother-in-law in another car, so there were no English translations.) We spent the afternoon celebrating the birthday of Michel’s stepfather. It was a beautiful, sunny afternoon fete in the garden of his home, eating and drinking and … speaking French. Then there was the drive back to Paris, this time with my brother-in-law, my eldest niece, and my nephew … speaking French. After that, while Michel and his sister returned the rental car, I hung out at my mother-in-law’s home with the little ones, drawing pictures, eating dinner and … speaking French. And then there was the cruise on the Seine with the whole family, enjoying the sights of Paris by night and … speaking French. The next day, we all reconvened for an afternoon at my father-in-law’s house—another beautiful, sunny day outside in the garden, eating and drinking, playing hide and seek with the kids and … speaking French.
I think it was around 7:00 on Sunday evening when I hit the saturation point. After 14 hours on Saturday and 7 hours on Sunday of being “on” in French, I just spaced out.
T’es fatigué, Michael ? • Are you tired, Michael?
Ouais un peu, mais je suis surtout un peu débordé. J’ai atteint la limite, je pense, et mon cerveau ne fonctionne plus ! • Yeah a little, but mostly, I’m a little overwhelmed. I’ve reached the limit, I think, and my brain isn’t working anymore!
We laughed, and I thought back to a bee that had fallen into a bottle of rosé on our table that afternoon. For fifteen minutes, it had swum in circles, never succumbing but evidently getting drunk on the wine. We had rescued it and laid it on a rose blossom to dry out—literally and figuratively—in the sunshine. A little while later, when we checked on it, it had gone, leaving a tiny drop of water behind on the rose petal where we had left it. Clearly, it had thrown up and flown away with a hangover.
Sunday night after getting back to the apartment, I was exhausted. Another episode of True Blood in English with French subtitles for Michel was exactly what I needed to dry out. Ah! American English, and with bad Southern accents!
Now, the day after, I think I’m ready to fall into my next bottle of rosé.
© 2011 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved