Photo of author’s son in Paris, France.

In my other life, as I like to call it, I was the translator. I often found myself sitting at a kitchen table with school documents sprawled out between me and an anxious mother. As a family therapist with seven years of Spanish classes behind me, these were the moments that most overwhelmed me. A mother sitting across the table, watching my mouth for familiar words, nodding her head with approval, or murmuring, “No entiendo” when confused. Slowly translating each document using basic Spanish vocabulary and many hand gestures, together we unraveled the mysteries of new school enrollment, calming her fears and reservations about sending her child to yet another new school.

In the fall of 2011, I said good-bye to that life and hello, or rather, “bonjour” to a new one. My husband, two-year-old son, and I had accepted an expatriate assignment to Paris, France for two to five years. Once our things were packed and shipped and our house rented, we checked into a hotel and patiently waited for our visas to be approved, a wait we were told could be as much as two weeks.

So we waited. Halloween came, then Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, each day with no French visa approval. What was supposed to be a short wait turned into 100 days of a life on hold. During that time, my husband loaded up our Rosetta Stone each night, immersing himself into learning French. I, on the other hand relished my new role as stay-at-home mom, opting for trips to the park, swimming in the hotel pool, and blogging rather than studying French. One lazy afternoon in January, the phone rang and my husband declared, “They’re here.” Our visas had arrived and it was time to go, leaving me no time to learn French. When I arrived, my French included saying hello, goodbye, and “Where is the bathroom?”

In early February, we arrived in Paris and lived in a hotel for eight weeks before finding an apartment. There was so much fear and anxiety inside of me, with my husband at work and my son and I alone in a new city. Everything was different and nothing at all like I had imagined or had prepared myself for. Trips to the grocery store left me crippled with anxiety that someone might “realize” that I couldn’t speak French. I purposely tried to “dress French” to blend in, and tried to do everything “right” so that no one would have to speak to me. If they did, I stared at them in confusion, mumbling, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak French.” During those early months, I cried a lot in secret behind sunglasses in the park watching my son trying to navigate French children and playgrounds.

Once we were finally unpacked and settled in our new apartment, French lessons began. During nap time, a sweet French woman came to our home to teach me the language. I completed my homework assignments and stumbled over my pronunciation. I read more about French culture and why things were the way they were. And somewhere during that time, I found my voice again. Until the mail came today, along with a packet from my son’s school…which are all in French.

Although I have a whopping three months of language classes behind me, I still cannot speak or read French fluently. I’ve been translating these school documents while dealing with the harsh realization that my little boy, my comrade in the perils and joys of life in Paris, will be leaving his Momma and going to school.

Even after translating the documents and asking questions to French speakers on the Internet, I’m still unsure if his first day is the 4th or the 6th of September! My husband and I giggle nervously over a translation that states we need to bring an elf and a empty box of matches with him on his first day. Really Google Translate, an elf and matches? We know we’ll get the list translated, but it’s just yet another reminder that although now that we try so hard, we still do not effectively grasp the language.

I long for my own family therapist to calm my worries, to explain when I say “Je ne comprends pas.” Our time in Paris is short, and I know that we will return to our other lives before we know it. I look forward to the familiarity of sitting at another kitchen table with a new anxious mother, only this time I will be able to say “Entiendo.”

Have you been in a situation where you have had to learn a new language in a new environment?  If so, how did you cope?

This is an original post by Jacki, an American expat living in Paris, France. To read more of Jacki’s posts, please visit her blog HJ Underway.

Photo credit to the author.


Jacki, or “MommaExpat,” as she’s known in the Internet community, is a former family therapist turned stay-at-home mom in Paris, France. Jacki is passionate about issues as they relate to mothers and children on both domestic and international scenes, and is a Volunteer Ambassador for the Fistula Foundation. In addition to training for her first half marathon, Jacki can be found learning French in Paris and researching her next big trip. Jacki blogs at H J Underway, a chronicle of her daily life as a non-French speaking mom in France.

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