Being in a foreign country is like being a baby. People have to speak to you extremely slowly, everything around you is new, exciting and terrifying, and you’re always exhausted from trying to communicate. Studying abroad in Grenoble, France was the most exhilarating, eye-opening, beautiful and petrifying experience of my life. I went after only having studied five semesters worth of French and unable to form complex sentences, but left France conversationally fluent. However, there were many humiliating experiences that contributed to the development of my French skills.
The most embarrassing experience was during my first week in Grenoble when I went to a bar with friends. Fluent in Spanish, one of my main strategies in speaking French was to cover up when I didn’t know a word in French by saying the word in Spanish or pronouncing English word with a Spanish accent, and hope that somehow the French would understand me. I think this tactic worked like once. However, I used this strategy at the bar when the bartender asked me what I wanted to drink. Being obsessed with cider after living in London for a few months, I wanted to know if he sold any, but quickly realized mid-sentence that I had no idea how to say cider in French. I opted to say cider in English with a Spanish accent to see if he would somehow, miraculously understand me. Instead, he gave me a look like I was crazy, then looked at other patrons to make sure that he wasn’t the only one who had heard what I had said. Everyone around me burst out laughing.
The bartender was kind enough to explain to me in broken English that I had just asked him if he had AIDS, and then responded to my question by saying that he did not. Mortified, I could do nothing else but join in on the laughter at the awkwardness of the situation and profusely apologize for my lack of French skills. But you know, you learn something new every day and that day I learned how to say AIDS in French.