By Anne K. Yoder
During my second week in Bordeaux, I begin to think fluidly in French. Not fluently, I’ve never been fluent. But my inner dialogue is suddenly a mix, infiltrated with French words and phrases “acheter” and “sac” and “c’est gentil” “j’ai voudrais” or “j’ai besoin.” Even when a salesperson speaks to me in English, I automatically respond in French. “Oui,” “merci.” I am surprised to realize this.
When I first arrived, my words hesitated. It was like they had been tucked away in the storage area of my brain, and I needed to locate and retrieve them. Such as when we first went out for lunch. You must ask for the check in order to receive your check, otherwise it’s assumed that you want to linger and converse. If you don’t ask you will literally sit at the table all day. There’s the universal gesture of scrawling a jagged line with your hand in the air, of course. But. The word. I had to think. Something to do with math. L’addition. Yes.
Or when I ordered a taxi for the following day, I had to look up sentences before dialing the phone. “J’ai voudrais demander un taxi demain,” I made note. “Demander” seemed too strong to my English sensibility, even though I know this means simply “to request.” Instead I went with “J’ai voudrais un taxi demain.” I had to review how to express time, too, after the half hour, time is subtracted from the next hour. “Cinc moins quart.” 4:45.
“Five?” the driver asked in response to my “cinc.”
“Oui,” I said. “Yes.”
To feel the friction of language in the everyday encounter. To anticipate not being understood. I enjoy this sense of being lost in language, mostly, swimming in words and encounters, very aware of the obstacle that my fragmented language presents. It must be climbed over, hurdled, bypassed. At the very least, acknowledged.
Rephrase. Try again. What I noticed is that with the potential for obfuscation overhanging even the most quotidian exchanges, each exchange became notable, I no longer took for granted the act of understanding and being understood.
As a writer I’ve always obsessed over finding the right words.
In this way, discovering the thesaurus seemed like discovering a hidden superpower. I was seven. I was visiting the beach with my family. It was fall and chilled, the air crisp, the boardwalk filled with seagulls, the beaches deserted. Too cold to swim, but perfect for walking. In a boardwalk bookstore I found a thesaurus and it was magic: each word with its corresponding list of words and phrases that could be used in its place—a catalog for how to express an idea in so many different ways. Expression seemed limitless, so many words spiraling out into the world.
Sadly my ability to speak French, is far closer to that of a seven-year-old. My thoughts are too complicated and abstract. I find over and over again that I just don’t know the words. And there are such silences, too. I feel them less than I did when I was young. It seems like there’s less of an imperative on conversation with strangers, in France, now that I’m older, too. I am talking on the train waiting to leave on a daytrip for St-Émilion. There are other passengers in our car but it’s quiet around us. My traveling companion shushes me because I’m talking and my voice stands out. This never happens to me in the States.
And yet, there were so many silences in my youth, too. My brother’s friend once observed, incredulously, how no one talked over dinner at my house. A family of introverts. A silence filled with unspoken thoughts. Or, that was part of it. Silence can mean so many things: a space to think, a space of animosity and tension, a space of contentment, of preoccupation, of resistance. I have inhabited these silences often but always while obsessing over how to fill them.
How to put into words. How to translate. While visiting Bordeaux, I am newly aware of this distance.
On a Sunday afternoon I am strolling by the Garonne River on this first cloudy day, thinking about how lovely the city looks with its old buildings and cobblestone streets and its bell tower and the river and sky in various shades of beige and gray. I am thinking about the novel that I’m writing and what I need to do next. I have just finished a draft and have spent the past week reading and moving sections. Trying to make sense of it.
As I am walking, a man approaches me from behind and begins talking. I ignore him. Soon he’s next to me, holding an espresso in his left hand, a cigarette in his right. Bonjour. I am reluctant to enter a conversation for many reasons, but mainly because I want to continue the conversation in my head. “Je marche et pense,” I say. But then, he’s asking me questions and I realize that I understand him. I become engaged by this possibility. Soon we are talking.
He is in Bordeaux setting up a fair in La Place de Quincones, an open park area where a fair is mounted twice a year. The park has been filled with trailers and rides in various stages of assemblage over the past week. He points in the direction of the rides and says his job is to “fair le montage,” or so I think. I know montrer is “to show.” I associate this phrase with films, too, and think that this has to do with setting the stage or scene, setting up the rides. I nod. When I look this up later I see that fair le montage translates into “do the editing.” I now realize the words don’t quite fit. Perhaps that’s not what he said at all. Despite this, I still feel assured that I understood.
I make my way to the CAPC, or the museum of contemporary art. Upstairs they’re showing a film by LaToya Ruby Frazier whose name I recognize because she just won a MacArthur genius grant, but also I recognize her name because she teaches at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, where I live. A familiarity. In her film, Detox (Braddock U.P.M.C.) Frazier documents herself and her mother with their feet immersed in pails of liquid, receiving ionic detoxes in the back of a rundown pharmacy. A medical assistant intermittently looks into their buckets and comments on the yeast and mucous accumulating.
I am captivated by the images but it’s their language that washes over me: intimacy without distance. I am there. The mother stutters as she talks about the physical manifestations of the psychic burden of her life in Braddock, PA, where the hospital is closing and where she feels their lives don’t matter. Is racism to blame, or as Frazier puts it, is it that they’re “working-class, below-the-poverty-line people”? These issues are unsettling and so real. I think I would understand their intonations too, even if their spoken words weren’t familiar. Perhaps not as well, but still. Or so I think.
French runs in subtitles below, and I wonder how the native French speakers surrounding me are processing this combination of image and language? How does their perception of this scene differ from mine? I feel no distance from their language in the dark, curtained room. I watch the film play three times through, feeling the need to scribble down phrases: “When you’re done we’ll take a nice picture,” the practitioner says. Also, “Most of the time it’s the mucousy things.” Says the mother: “That’s an uncomfortable feeling.”
And I recognize that distance from familiar language is like a detox, too. I have only overheard and understood a few conversations. I have only partially understood overhead announcements, on the train, in the plane, on public transit. When I can’t anticipate the context of a conversation, I am often thrown off. I have become newly aware of how fluency adds depth to each encounter. I’m clinging to words I know, writing them down. And I wonder, perhaps that’s what’s intermittently lost while stumbling through fragmented language—the intimacy of comprehension, sharing, of context, of going deeper. But it’s also recognition gained. So much is surface, gesture, but the richness of language in all its vividness and peculiarity comes in so many layers.
Anne K. Yoder’s fiction, essays, and criticism have been published Fence, Bomb, and Tin House, among other publications. She is a staff writer for The Millions, co-editrix of Projecttile, a journal of nontraditional writing with a feminist bent, and a member of Meekling Press. She lives in Chicago, where she’s at work on a novel.