Learning French

My baby cousin was born in 1998. At this time I was in the 4th grade, and very excited. Being so much younger than her siblings and closest cousins, she was the only one to not reap the advantage of only speaking Arabic until she went to school. We foiled our parent’s plans and taught her English well before her time. One such lesson came when we went to Wal-Mart together when she was about two years old. Greeting customers stood an elderly man in a blue vest handing out yellow stickers decorated with the Wal-Mart smiley face.

I love walmart stickers

A mature 11, I did not want a sticker. My baby cousin, however, REALLY wanted a sticker. She tugged on our sleeves and expressed her aspirations to bestow the sticker upon her little hand. There was but one thing standing in her way: She couldn’t speak English.

Along with her older sister, I coached my little cousin in a huddle next to the corral of shopping carts. “You can do it!”, we assured her, “Repeat after me: I WANT A STICKER.”

Locking eyes with me, she recited deliberately, “I….want….sticker…”

“Very good! Again!” We had her repeat the phrase many times until she looked ready. “Alright, now walk over there and say exactly that.” Pattering over to the greeter, she confidently proclaimed, just as she’d practiced half a dozen times…. “I    WANT      STICKER”. I was so proud of my brave little cousin.

The man leaned down to her level, smiled and replied, “Whuudyoo saayy?”  I saw her confidence deflate when she turned to us, unprepared to say another statement to this  man, who apparently didn’t speak English either. “It’s okay, say it again” we instructed her from a safe distance. ……  “I      WANT     STICKER!”  She raised her voice…… Again, “Whuuudyoo saayy?” We nodded to signal her request again.  Even louder,  “I    WANT      STICKER!!!”………. No dice, “Whuuudyoo saayy?”

Someone had to intervene. “She wants a sticker!” My older cousin and I seemed to shout in unison.

“Oh! Here you go!”

This is how I feel trying to speak French in public. Learning a language informally as an adult can be tricky. I learn phrases as needed and practice saying them at strangers, who sometimes don’t quite understand me. Since most people do speak some English, I don’t usually require a translator’s supervision…usually.

Daily, I think about my little cousin learning how to ask the Wal-Mart greeter for a sticker. I not to get frustrated or scared when someone speaks French to me or worse, responds to me in French when I clearly don’t speak French; I just remember how adorable my little cousin was, grinning like a little fool with her yellow sticker.

Transferable Skills

A few weeks after coming home, I realized that life here has also progressed. Some things are the same, many are different. The songs on the radio are different. There are now “express” highways in addition to the normal highways. For example, you can take the exact same road in two options: express which is has a toll, or normally. My friends are doing great and have exciting changes in their lives as well. My sister just finished writing a 179 page PhD thesis about her lung cancer research, which is probably more pages than I have managed to write in the last four years of blogging.

I’m older. My parents are older, and most notably, my grandfather is older as well. I realized I have to make spending time with him a priority. So, after my month long ‘victory lap’ around the Western US, I went down to East Texas for a few days, a routine I hope to maintain weekly through the time I am here. It was awkward when he was confused or didn’t understand what I was saying. It was painful to watch him shaking and cringing as he slept for 16 or more hours a day. But I stayed at home, sitting beside him as much as I could. I found that as a result, I also slept close to 16 hours a day. I became a little lazy, not leaving the house even to do run necessary errands. I just sat with my grandpa, watching NBA playoff games and trying to engage him in conversation as much as I could.

Ironically, the few days spent inside the house, not seeing the sunlight, reminded me of being offshore. I didn’t get the itch or urge to leave, just sat and let the time pass. In the oddest of ways, maybe the most valuable skill I picked up while working as an engineer offshore was how to JUST SIT. As I sat for days and weeks waiting to get to work offshore, a mental tactic to quell the anticipation was to often think to myself I was NEVER going to work, but just sitting for the sake of sitting. Now as my grandpa heaves in his sleep and the single most exciting part of the day is sharing an ice cream with him. I find I’m comfortable sitting just to sit. I’m sitting just to spend time with a great man.