I don’t know of many people who step out of a plane in Atlanta and expect to be accosted by the multi-lingual, cosmopolitan sounds that one might encounter in Heathrow. I didn’t expect that either.
That was my mistake.
Every once and awhile (ok, maybe every week) I feel like the coolest kid on earth when I speak French to my Parisian partner. Thank my lucky stars, he is forever patient with my French. It doesn’t matter if I am trying to conjugate some horribly irregular verb in past subjunctive tense that shouldn’t exist in the first place anyway, or if I accidentally mispronounce words so that “country” suddenly becomes “fart”. He thinks I’m cute, so he puts up with it and never laughs at me – even when we’re in public.
Due to where I live, I don’t really consider the possibility that strangers walking around can understand, let alone speak French. Spanish, yes. But French, no way.
In fact, I was so thoroughly convinced of this that as I stepped off the plane into the Atlanta airport, that I immediately drew my linguistic baguette sword to fend off any potential intruders into the conversation. I was unshakable in my conviction that my rudeness and exhaustion would be overlooked because I was speaking French.
Actually, as I was enjoying the invisible shield that this language provided me with. Clearly, I have ulterior motives when I learn a language.
As I chattered away making up verbs and teasing my partner, he gracefully allowed me to gut his language as if I were a bull trying to master the torero.
Each time I said something undecipherable he smoothed it over with an impeccably executed slice of his tongue leaving my sentences feeling bled and dry.
Had we been alone in this delicate linguistic dance, I would have come out wounded but standing. As it were, it turned out I was two against one.
As we stood waiting in line to board the plane, my partners gaze flicked occasionally over my shoulder. It’s not that I imagine myself to be magnetic and uniquely able to monopolize his gaze, I’m aware that people observe their surroundings as they converse. However, a peculiar shine in his eyes that was echoed by his softly trenched crows feet made me curious who was behind me.
A glance behind me told me nothing. College t-shirts, glazed over eyes, and awkwardly arranged bodies were all that trailed behind me. Not an uncommon site when you’re lined up to board a plane. Nor was the man in a Longhorn t-shirt who was standing almost too close to us.
I shrugged it off.
By the time I made it to my seat I felt like I had reached my 30th birthday, not just my designated sardine-like confines. I made sure to say as much (in French) as I flopped down into my seat with a glare at the longhorn t-shirt man who had finally invaded my personal space bubble.
As I reached down to extract my book from where it was buried beneath my twisted scarf, I noticed that the man didn’t continue further down the aisle.
He looked directly at my partner, avoiding eye-contact with me, and enquired in impeccable French, “Hi, I heard you speak French. Can you help me clarify something?”
I immediately exchanged my book for my scarf and hid behind a flimsily constructed curtain of twisted colors and English ignorance.
Whether he needed clarification on what I had be waxing on about, or the fact that he needed someone who actually spoke French and English to find out the status of his luggage will forever remain a mystery to me. Either way, he reminded me that smashing carelessly through the delicate constructions of a language and assuming that no one can understand you is probably always the wrong idea.
Maybe next time I’ll bother to conjugate my verbs first.