Spring 2011, #17


Living in Two Languages

     by Susan Tiberghien

When I married Pierre and moved to France, I slowly slipped into a French-speaking pattern — thinking, dreaming, and raising children in French. Only when the children grew up and left home, did I have the time and the space to venture back to an English-speaking pattern. We were living then in Switzerland. It is a neutral country, for the world and for us, neither France nor America. It has become our home, welcoming both of our nationalities.

It took awhile to adjust anew to the English model, to make the edges fit and flatten the seams. I hunted out associations of English speakers. I read the booksthat I had overlooked for twenty years. I started dreaming anew in English. Then one day I found myself American once again. Pierre appreciates the variable metamorphosis, like having both wife and mistress. And I have the choice: Will I live the coming day in French or in English.

If I decide for French, I'll greet my husband with “Bonjour, mon cheri, as-tu bien dormi?” A detailed exchange will follow about whether we slept soundly or less soundly, if we were too hot or too cold, how many times we woke, if we feel rested and so forth. I will dress in a dark skirt and lighter blouse, with a silk scarf perhaps and a string of pearls.

Our breakfast will be short and precise — coffee, bread and butter, and confiture. I'll question him about his coming day, and he'll question me about mine. It will all be logical, one subject after another, well constructed, with an introduction, development, and conclusion, very much like a disser­tation.

My day will continue as such. In my head I'll make lists of things to do, and I'll go about my morning methodically, paying attention to priorities and not losing time. When I do my errands, I'll avoid con­versation with people I meet, especially with people I don't know and there­fore never shall know. And I’ll be unfailingly polite, “Bonjour Madame,” “Au revoir Monsieur,” “Vous etes tres aimable, Madame,” “Je vous remercie, Monsieur.” I'll use the same salutation and the same tone of voice, be it with my neighbor or the mailman.

Back home, in the afternoon, when working at my desk, I may loosen up temporarily, but if the telephone rings, I'll sit up straight, pick up the receiver and reply, “Allo?” without the slightest encouragement to whomever it may be. With only a few exceptions, the call will be short—frugal in words and affability.

In the evening, I will relate my day to Pierre and ask about his. During dinner — the table will be formally set, linen table cloth and napkins, candles, the serving dishes will be hot — we will talk seriously about something in the news, politics, a book or theater. Each of us will give our opinion and listen courteously to the other. Then we’ll talk about our grown children, our friends, the people we should invite.

If we are planning a dinner party, Pierre will suggest that I send invitations rather than phone everyone, “C’est moins familier,” he'll say. And I will try to explain that I prefer to call. “C’est plus personnel,” I’ll say. And I will try to not confuse the “tu” and the “vous”, the less formal and the more formal. Still today, we have a few friends whom we address with the formal “vous”. As well as Pierre's parents, who address Pierre with “tu” and me with “vous”.

Now, however, if I decide to live my day in English, I will greet my French husband with something like, “Good morning, dear, time to get up,” shaking him a bit to make sure he's heard me. I'll dress in a brightly colored shirt and comfortable slacks. Together we’ll prepare breakfast — orange juice, bagels and cream cheese or English muffins, and some mornings we’ll do eggs and bacon.

I'll take my time, relating my dreams, asking about his, and talking about whatever comes into my mind. He'll try to get up from the table once or twice, but I'll ask him to sit still, not to rush off, reminding him how much I loved our long leisurely breakfasts when we lived in the States.

When he's gone, I'll stay right there and reread yesterday's English newspaper, making myself a second or third cup of coffee, adding hot water to make it less strong. Before starting to do any cleaning or errands, I'll maybe call and invite a friend for lunch.

When I go shopping, if I meet somebody I haven't seen for weeks, I'll stop and chat. We’ll make plans to see one another. Finally I'll skip the shopping and go home to fix whatever I have in the refrigerator. My friend won't mind, she's used to my impromptu menus.

In the afternoon I'll work at my desk. When the phone rings, I'll lean back in my chair — or better, I'll take the phone and go lie down on my bed — and answer, “Hi, this is Susan.” And I won't look at my watch. If the weather's good, I'll go for a walk, down the road opposite our house, near the empty fields that remind me of where I grew up in New York. I'll find a stone and kick it along for company. I'll say hello to the people I meet, they'll look startled and most likely won't answer. Only their dogs will wag their tails.

In the evening, I'll tell Pierre about the friend I met shopping, about my friend who came for lunch, about my walk, about the people and their dogs. He’ll laugh, we’ll laugh together. I'll serve our supper in the kitchen, we'll carry our plates to the dining table. He'll start to tell me about his day, what he did in the morning, what he did at lunchtime, what he did in the afternoon. I'll interrupt him to ask questions that won't have much to do with what he was saying. He’ll try to follow.

Then I'll go telephone our guests for Friday evening, and I’ll say “tu” to everyone. I’ll add a few more friends. The list will grow. I’ll serve a buffet, people will move around and mix, and I’ll be able to talk with everyone. In English and in French.

Once the two patterns fit, the choice is mine. I wake up and write down my dreams in whatever language I dreamed them. I read the newspapers in both. I talk with everyone I meet, but keep time to be still. I laugh at myself even when I am trying to be serious. And I make “I love you” sound just as beautiful as “Je t'aime.”