“Itchy Feet” Chronicles: Fear and Courgettes Posted by Transparent Language on Nov 13, 2013 in Language Learning
Malachi Rempen is an American filmmaker, author, photographer, and cartoonist. Born in Switzerland, raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he fled Los Angeles after film school and expatted it in France, Morocco, Italy, and now Berlin, Germany, where he lives with his Italian fiancée. Itchy Feet is his weekly cartoon chronicle of travel, language learning, and life as an expat.
I was inspired to write this strip back in 2011 after a particularly terrifying episode at the supermarket involving zucchini (or “courgettes,” as they’re known by the French and, for some reason, the British). I had been living in Lyon, France for about six weeks, and it was my first or second time out and about by myself. Having studied exactly 0 hours of French before arriving in the country, a toddler would have schooled me on syntax and pronunciation, but nevertheless I foolishly felt I was adequately prepared to deal with picking up a few fruits and veggies.
Socially speaking, the supermarket transaction is the simplest of interactions to complete: goods are presented for purchase, money changes hands, said goods are bagged, and the question of who keeps the receipt is settled to the satisfaction of all interested parties. It is expected (particularly by those standing behind) to take as little time as possible, and none of the parties anticipates confusion or misunderstanding to enter into the equation.
This is precisely why the paralyzing fear of waiting in the supermarket line in a foreign land is second to none.
I am required by all parties present to behave exactly according to the social norms. Why, a local might think, would anyone be afraid or confused to enter into such a simple interaction? He expects, not wrongly, for everything to go smoothly, and for me to play my part in the social game without incident. But the local is not privy to an important factor: that in my case, language is a wild card. His French has been fine-tuned over many decades to manage this sort of situation perfectly, as well as any sort of unique variances that may rear their heads (e.g., “do you have a frequent shopper’s card?”, or “excuse me, I’m only buying one item, may I go in front of you?”). He has nothing at stake.
But my French, at the moment of this interaction, has been built by listen-and-repeat audio lessons that do not stray from the script. Even one step off the conversation I have pre-written in my head could spell utter disaster. I risk everything. Will this supermarket visit be a triumphant victory, in which no party of locals present even realizes that I am not one of them? Or will it be a bitter defeat, filled with humiliation, shame, and worst of all, the holding up of the line?
This is the grim scene facing every language newcomer in the dreaded supermarket queue. Sadly, in my case, it was to be defeat.
There were two things I had not taken into consideration before entering the checkout line. First, in France (as in most European countries), there is no strapping young lad paid to bag your goods. No, the task of bagging is yours alone, and the cost of bags is yours to carry. Now, years later and more experienced, I adore this system, but at the time I was assaulted with a baffling array of bag-related questions which I was woefully unprepared to answer. Second, though it is not the case everywhere, in this particular market one is required to weigh and price one’s own vegetables using the store’s machine. In the USA, this is done at the checkout counter. I had simply bagged my zucchini, sans sticker. O, cruel world!
Thus was I thrust rudely into the center of attention. Shoppers in line behind me fixed me with spiteful gazes while the cashier attempted, using crude gestures and increased volume, to explain my folly. I had been found out: I was no local, like those innocent others. I was a foreigner. I did not belong in their supermarket. I was not worthy of purchasing their vegetables. I put the pieces together and slunk away, red-faced and quietly furious, back to the veggie section to weigh my zucchini.
Today my French is sufficient to handle not only such a misunderstanding, but also the fear of being recognized for a fraud. That experience no longer troubles me as it once did, and there will come a day when it will no longer trouble you. The human desire to belong, to follow those social rules without error and to disappear seamlessly into the crowd, is not a matter of language, but a matter of time. Rarely do we uproot ourselves from our comfortable surroundings, plunge ourselves into the unfamiliar, and immediately feel at home. With each passing day, we feel a bit more at ease.
I put the question to you now, gentle reader. What misfortunes have you suffered in foreign lands that wouldn’t make a local blink, but to you signaled the end of days?