“Je parle Anglais?” which translates to “I speak English” but the question here is why there is a question mark if this is a plain statement. Well, to answer that I must take a few steps back into the past when I was a newcomer to the city of Brussels and the French language was more alien to me than my relationship with it now.
It all began in the year 2009. Thanks to the extremely busy schedules of my husband back in those days (there were times when he used to leave home at 7:45 AM and won’t see it back till 3 AM the next morning, I was left at the mercy of television and internet connection to spend my days. But for how long. Slowly I started despising my loneliness, the damp and gloomy weather of the city where the sun won’t greet people for days together added to my woes. Calm Sundays where the city would come to a halt made me miss India very much. That’s where I decided I must take things in my hands rather than just sitting back and cursing and sulking.
I began with a small walk in the direction of my nose (a subtle way of saying that I am pretty bad at remembering routes, have to literally register landmarks strongly lest I would get lost). It was a good walk of around 40 minutes and of course a good change for me. But what made me sweat profusely wasn’t the walk but the fact that I was unable to open the main door of the building where I used to reside. I believe the mechanism was somewhat different (anyways let’s not get into the practical details). I stood there for quite some time now, unable to open the door before I finally decided to seek help from someone. The first thing that came into my mind was what if the person whom I will request for help isn’t convinced with the situation that I am narrating, in short, what if he thinks I am an imposter trying to break into some random house. And to make the matters worse I didn’t know how to converse in French. But I had to seek help. I stopped someone who was crossing the street, and greeted him with the only word I knew back then in French “Bonjour“, he smiled and waited for the reason why he was stopped by a stranger. I gestured at the door and showed him the keys and continued in English. I was about to break into tears anytime now. He seemed to have understood and helped me get into the house. There was another incident where a heavily pregnant me was suddenly very low on sugar and was about to collapse with my groceries. A lady who was passing by stopped to check on me. I couldn’t explain myself but then it seemed she didn’t need my words anymore, she took out a juice from the groceries I was carrying and opened it for me, made me sit comfortably, and left me only after I was feeling a bit better. All I could say was “Merci” (another staple word in my french vocabulary then).
These and many other petty incidents made me realize the importance of the ability to converse in the local language. I narrated the entire episode to my husband. He said to start the conversation with “Je parle Anglais” but I misunderstood the word “Je” for “You” in English (Tu & Vous are used for addressing the same). Here starts the fun. I did my little work at home on petty words and went out confidently. I used to start my conversation with the sentence I mentioned above with a tone and expression of a question mark and now writing this piece I realize how puzzled I left people then. They definitely might have thought “okay good for you if you speak English, why bother us“. But the moment they heard me speaking, in fact struggling to strike and start a conversation they would start speaking (their tryst with English) in a way to take the conversation forward. That’s how I made friends with the supermarket staff around the house. I realized if I put an effort to learn a particular language that would show my intent – intent to mingle, intent to converse. Apart from making day-to-day life easy, I believe putting efforts to learn the language of the land you reside in is a small token of respect and gratitude.
Now after nearly 12 years, I am able to converse less hesitantly, and more confidently. On a personal level over the years I understood a conversation is more about getting a grip on the emotion people are sending across to each other. And for everything else, there’s a smartphone and google translator that’s always handy. (***Note: back in 2009 I didn’t have that help outside the IP range of my home:))