When things fall into place: on moving to France and (not) being ginger
When I moved to France, I couldn’t figure out for a long time why everyone was asking me whether I was ginger.
Do I look ginger to you? I don’t think so!
I thought maybe they were asking me about gingerbread – it’s quite a big thing in Poland, which is where I grew up. Mainly at Christmas, though, and it was only September.
‘Es-tu rousse?’ (are you ginger?), I kept hearing in conversations with new people. ‘Non. Je suis pas rousse’ (no, I’m not ginger) I’d say, confused.
And then I realised! A couple months later, I finally realised that where there was one sound for ‘u’ in Polish, there were two – very different ones – in French. ‘Ou’ and ‘u’. ‘Rousse’ and ‘russe’.
So, what everyone had been asking me about was whether I was Russian and not whether I was ginger!
Well, that made sense. My Polish accent when I spoke French was probably making people wonder whether I was Russian. And nobody was actually asking questions about my hair colour!
And guess what happened next. A complete breakthrough with my French. I learned one tiny difference between two sounds and everything changed. I was getting more and more fluent every day.
I kept discovering new things every day, though. Many of them relating to the language. The French language as spoken in France, rather than in the classroom back at my university in the north of England.
My main discovery – and it’s something that I’m sure many of you will identify with – was that French people made grammar mistakes. All the time.
For example, they hardly ever made negative sentences sound correct. It was always ‘C’est pas possible!’ and not the perfectly correct ‘Ce n’est pas possible’, as any grammar book would tell you.
And they would never bother saying all the words in ‘Je ne sais pas’, which sounded more like the word for ‘turnip’ in Polish – ‘rzepa’ (you go and Google translate it for pronunciation – aren’t I right?!).
It was exciting, though, to be able to discover this new reality. To learn a language that the real people spoke. And to learn from them.
It was great to have real conversations with real people. To do that, though, I had to change my schedule slightly. To be more precise, in order to find any French people around me, I had to start having my dinner waaay later than normal.
You see, I was living in a university hall of residence with a shared kitchen. For the first few days, I thought all the French students were eating out in town – probably something fancy like foie gras or snails. I was on a budget so I couldn’t do that.
But then I discovered that they did actually use the shared kitchen. Just as I was getting ready for bed. When I tried their way of dining, I made new friends straight away.
That’s one of the best and at the same time the most challenging things about moving abroad. Trying out new ways of doing things, which are sometimes exciting and sometimes completely outside your comfort zone.
But you have to do them, or at least try them once, to really understand the local culture and make the most of it. Or at least to be able to say you prefer your own way of doing things – like I prefer to eat my dinner when I’m hungry so I’m glad I live in London now!
Agnieszka is a language coach and blogger, based in London. She’s the founder of the 5-Minute Language School, and her mission is to help and motivate language learners worldwide so that every person in the world has a chance to learn a foreign language.
Feeling inspired to learn some French? Check out Memrise!