41. How To Learn French In Four Months / by Allie Farris

Step One: Move Somewhere That Speaks Mostly French


     It’s been one week since my plane touched down in sunny Switzerland. I’ve been taking things very slow so far: mostly spending a great deal of time wandering around supermarkets and hiding in the fancy gym I’m lucky enough to get a discounted membership with through C’s company. I’m doing myself no favors, however, because while locked into long grocery trips or hours spent lifting weights on various machines, I’m still listening to my same American comedy/Star Trek-related podcasts; like a spacesuit helmet filled with oxygen as I encounter an alien atmosphere. It’s only until I forget some mundane new rule, like adding five cents to my total for every plastic bag I use, or not getting a bar code for the loose bananas I grabbed (that for some reason can’t be logged in manually at the register), that a store clerk comes up behind me to kindly point out the error. That tap on the shoulder and unintelligible strain of sounds and inflections comes at me, a lightning bolt of panic, and I rip out my ear bud to try to understand the incoming message. Each time, I’m torn from the safe bubble I’ve placed myself in and out into my new, wild reality. 


     C took Friday off to help me get settled, and together we wandered all over the city, stopping at random intervals to catch a good view from the terrace of the grand church overlooking Lausanne, or to grab a piece of quiche at Globus, my new favorite supermarket, which is like Whole Foods on crack. Each part of the store, whether it be seafood (king tiger prawns, swordfish, scallops in the shell); to breads (freshly made baguettes, french croissants, pastries, challah, brioches of various flavors); to meats (bison, veal, and every size, shape, weight and age of chicken that would make Julia Child blush); has its own dedicated expert to answer your every culinary question. Let’s not even go into the wine and cheese sections. C’est cray-cray.

     The first night I was here, because United Airlines had stolen our Saturday from us, C went to Globus in lieu of a late night meal out, surprising me with four ages of Swiss gruyere; a fresh, round loaf of bread with a caramelized, brandy-colored crust; and two kinds of artisan charcuterie. All of these delicacies, he told me, were made right in Lausanne. He then reached into the fridge, and pulled out a bottle of Grand Cru champagne. Welcome to Europe.


Step Two: Cut Out All Distractions


     My piano business, as of this week, will be no more. It hurts to write, but I haven’t had any interest and after a week of being here, I’m already feeling my absence beginning to look like unprofessionalism in the eyes of my waning email responses to prospective clients who don’t know I’m responding from an ocean away. It’s time to really start fresh, and begin the new race towards success through my art. That being said, even though I no longer want to tune, I worry daily about what that might mean for my ear. I’m desperate to keep my super-hearing; I feel like it may be the key to my individuality in music, even if it means I wince at the passing motorist and I’m one of those people that has to plug their ears when an ambulance goes by. I worry about losing my gift every day I don’t tune, but I have no idea how to find a piano over here. In passing, I heard someone playing an out-of-tune upright at an event in Globus. I then wilted when I remembered I had no idea how to say “I can tune pianos” in Swiss French, and kept walking.

     I also bid a soft farewell to my 214 Dallas area code cell number this week, which I’ve had since my first phone at age 14. That’ll be about 14 years next month. My new number, starting with a +41 Swiss country code (I will always find it hilarious that America is +1, because it’s just so...’Murica) will be used anytime I’m not back in the USA. That way, at least for now, I’ll cling to my nostalgia a little while longer and still look like a Texan in Nashville. 


     On Friday, C and I walked nearly ten miles over an 8-hour stretch. We saw many different neighborhoods and buildings, before plunging down the steep hillside, angling our feet on cobblestone declines and past the main train station to the coast of Lake Geneva; to a little neighborhood called Ouchy (pronounced Ooshie). Watching swans bob for small fish dwelling in the rocks on the shore, we sat in the mid-afternoon breeze at one of C’s favorite bars and watched the ferries come and go, drinking glasses of rosé.


Step Three: Perseverance


     My first day alone in Lausanne, I was tasked with getting new running shoes, and going to set up my membership at the fancy gym. Thinking it would be good for me, C told me to be brave, gave me the name of the shop (Swiss Sport), and had me download an offline map of Lausanne to my then-WiFi-only phone. Checking constantly that my keys had not fallen out of my denim tote bag, I ventured out, with a hazy notion of where I was going. I soon found the store that was called “Swiss Sport Spirit”, which did have a pair of sport shoes on display in the window, but as I walked up to the register, greeted the shopkeeper, and sheepishly asked if she spoke English, I was met with an empathetic, “I’m sorry” type of look, and a single, pained “Non”. What followed was a 30 minute mime-fest that miraculously culminated with my leaving the store wearing brand new, sleek, Swiss running shoes. 


     On Friday morning, before we left on our epic 8-mile trek, C and I were in the apartment sipping coffee and waiting for the repairman to arrive to replace a rusty radiator. C, knowing the repairman would be there any minute and would absolutely not speak English, asked if I might be persuaded to visit our nearest bakery to pick up a pastry for us both. Never one to turn down freshly baked French bread products, I scuttled out the front door, coin purse in hand, for the next street over. 

     Upon hearing the bell announcing my presence in the shop amid seemingly unending streams of machine-gun French, I realized that I had made a terrible mistake. The tiny signs in front of the sumptuously shiny baked goods turned to hieroglyphics; and I began searching for the only thing I knew how to say that also was a thing I wanted. When it was my turn at the register, I stepped forward and said as silkily as possible:


“Deux pain au chocolat, si vous plaît.”


Two chocolate croissants, please.


     Breathing a sigh of relief, I thought perhaps I would make it though this single outing without looking like a dumb foreigner. Maybe I really was learning. Maybe I was starting to get the hang of this!

     He then smiled and began to speak at me. Long, mirthful streams of slurred language cascading forth from his mouth: could be be commenting on my hair? My mysterious accent? My now blank, ghost-like expression of terror?

     He stopped, and as if he had put together what was going on, and said something that I pieced together was “where do you come from?” 


“America”, I groaned, defeated.


He smiled—he was a nice man—and said, slowly: “[your total is] cinque francs.”


I looked down, around, mortified that I had been discovered, and now freshly shamed at knowing I would have to stand in front of another human and count on my fingers like a lost kindergartener. He saw my struggle, my fluttering lips, and mercifully held up his own hand, with all five fingers extended. The depth of my embarrassment was palpable.


“À bientôt”, he said, at my beet-red and retreating form.


Final Step: Success


It won’t be easy, and it won’t be super fast, but I can do this. I like it here; the country, the different cultures, the foods, wines, and foliage I find all very inspiring. I think my creativity could really flourish, and I even did a first draft for a new music video for one of mine and Cheyenne’s new songs, so FM is still as strong as ever. I just can’t have too bloated of an ego to fail a few more times, or equally be too afraid to venture out past our front door or remain inside the cushy confines of my gym or grocery store ear buds. If I try, I win.


That being said, this evening I walked into the bathroom at our local pizza joint and nearly ran straight into a visibly lost, elderly man in the women’s restroom. A middle-aged woman with long, dark hair then burst through the door, turning to speak to me in rapid-fire Italian.


I sidle past her and go into a stall, locking the door behind me.


Not today, madam. Not today.