Before I left home, everyone I spoke to gave me advice. Even though none of them have moved off the continent before, I appreciate their eagerness to contribute and value (most) their insights. Two pieces of advice (other than “call your mother”) were given so often, I’ll now refer to them as “The Golden Rules of Living Abroad: Written by People Who Haven’t Done it.”
They said 1) the best way to learn a language is through emersion, and 2) if you don’t know how to do something, watch someone else first. I’m sure these are both great pieces of advice and I’ve actually received these nuggets of wisdom throughout my life.
However, after four days in Saumur, I’m slightly annoyed I haven’t seen any advances in my French whatsoever. I’m keeping my fingers crossed in hopes I’m not a lost cause and the rule insinuates more longevity than a mere four days.
However, in a legitimate testament to the validity of learning through observation, I vote it only applies to 3/10th of the cultural moments that stop you in your tracks:
1. When I first boarded the TGV (bullet train) in the Charles de Gaulle airport, I had two large suitcases and no idea what to do with them. I didn’t want to be a total loser and ask the information booth, since I’d already expressed my concern that my train number was scheduled to arrive in a different city (my destination was just a stop on the way to Bordeaux… duh), so I just followed a man who looked like he knew what to do. Then he boarded the train with his luggage, and stowed them on luggage racks.
At this point, by watching someone first, I knew what to do and waited for people to board so I wouldn’t be a nuisance with my two large bags. Then I regretted that once-considerate decision when I discovered my seat was on the second level. And I needed to bring my bags with me.
Two trains later, I mastered The Look to give men behind me when needing assistance carrying my luggage up and down train steps and station platforms.
2. I visited a little grocery to purchase some essentials (Febreze) and was alarmed by the register. There were two converter belts parallel to, and on either side of, the register.
There was also a metal slide, accompanying one belt, sat at a downwards angle toward the patron. I know, you can see my alarm. Where do I put my basket and items? Where’s the bag boy? So I pretended to be interested in some lentils until I spied on an elderly lady paying (hint: hand basket on the slide, groceries on belt #1, then bag as the items are returned to you on belt #2).
3. The last example that comes to mind was my first time using the bus. I was proud of myself for figuring out which line to use. After visiting three arrêts (bus stops) I thought were for ligne 31, I found mine as the bus arrived. I gave the driver money on his tray (as the lady in front had done) then got my ticket. Then the driver stopped me and told me to insert the ticket into a machine. So I did. But not well enough because he stopped me again. Then a passenger had to help me. Then as I walked to my seat once more, I dropped all my change. Then I almost missed my stop. So this one’s half-and-half.
The unfortunate reality is that the other 7.5/10 times, the rule doesn’t apply, like for the cultural and practical tasks I navigate each day. There was no one to watch when buying a cell phone plan, or purchasing the sausage link on the butchers counter, or exiting my apartment building for the first time…
It has helped me in other situations, but to be honest, I’m not flying past every cultural difference. I think rule number two is a great rule to observe, and it has helped me more than twice probably, it’s just imperative I realize it’ll help far less often than I imagined.