Some of my favorite childhood memories are from the days when stormy weather would knock off the electricity in our house. Since there was no television for entertainment, my brothers and I would play games to pass the time. There were card games, guessing games and games like punching each other to see who could leave the biggest bruise.
For those few hours, my brothers and I were at our closest because we shut off all of life’s distractions and communicated. But in a world with television, computers and awkward situations, where do you find the time to talk? Where do you find the strength?
Several years ago I decided to expand my communication skills by learning French. I moved to Paris and rented a mattress on the floor of an apartment. The owner’s name was Philippe, whom I’d met through a friend.
I didn’t speak French when I arrived in Paris, and Philippe barely spoke English. So our conversations were limited to one word or short phrases like, “Bonjour,” “Au revoir,” and “Ou est la toilette?”
My first week in Paris, I stayed out of the apartment all day and most of the night to avoid having to talk to Philippe. He seemed very nice, but there were only so many times I could tell him hello, goodbye or ask for the toilet.
But then one day, due to a bad rainstorm, I had to go back to the apartment in the afternoon and face my French-speaking roommate. He was sitting in a velvet high back chair in what I called a “living room,” but what he called a “salon”. His feet rested on a bearskin rug, and in one of his hands was a cigarette on the end of a very long filter like the ones Hollywood starlets used back in the 1940’s.
‘Bonjour,” Philippe said when he saw me.
“Bonjour,” I replied. “Comment ca va?”
My French had improved and I was able to ask questions like, “How are you doing?” “What time is it?” and “Do you know a restaurant that sells good snails?”
“Voulez-vous un the’?” Philippe asked.
I surprisingly understood that my roommate was offering me some tea. I had a choice to go back to my room and lie on my mattress on the floor, or sit down in the salon and awkwardly try to communicate in a language I didn’t know while avoiding getting burnt by a three-foot long cigarette.
I knew that if I were ever going to learn French, I would have to try to speak it regardless of an uncomfortable situation. So I said, “Oui,” and took a seat on a sofa on the other side of the bearskin rug. Philippe disappeared into the kitchen and then returned moments later with a silver tray holding a small porcelain tea kettle, a couple of cups and saucers, and a stack of cookies.
We didn’t talk for several minutes. We’d only sip our tea and take small bites of cookies. The silence between us was painful like a high-pitched siren that makes you want to scream. I wondered if I should suggest a game, and then punch him to see if he bruised.
But then Philippe pulled a book off of a shelf behind him, and opened it. He smiled at one of the pages and held it up to me and pointed at a picture of a dining room.
“J’adore cette chaise,” he said.
I didn’t see a door in the picture, and realized that he must be telling me that he adored the chair. It seemed odd to me that someone would adore furniture, but no more odd than drinking tea with the skin of a very large bear.
“Moi, aussi,” I agreed. “J’adore cette chaise.”
Our small communication seemed to unlock something in Philippe and he began speaking non-stop in French. I would occasionally understand a word like, couchon (pig), chien (dog) and champagne (champagne).
But then my roommate spoke of something I understood, but couldn’t believe he’d said. It was the same word in America, but there was no need for two men to ever talk about it.
“La douche est cassee’,” he said.
Douche? I thought. Is this conversation really about feminine hygiene products? How do the pig and champagne fit in?
I couldn’t just smile and pretend like I understood. I had to respond to this, so I used a phrase that had become my best friend in Paris.
“Je ne comprends pas,” I answered. “I don’t understand.”
Philippe took a sip of tea and them smiled. He took a drag off of his cigarette while I ducked to avoid getting burnt.
“The shower is broken,” he said.
After a few weird minutes, I got my French English dictionary and looked up the word, “shower.” This is where I found an explanation for my friend saying the word, “douche.”
I began laughing so hard that I could barely catch my breath. When I did, I was able to communicate to Philippe my misunderstanding. This was difficult because he had never heard of a product such as an American douche and didn’t know the French word for it. Then he began laughing and we finished off the tea and cookies, and looked at pictures of furniture we both adored.
Every afternoon for the rest of my stay in Paris, Philippe and I would sit in the salon and drink tea. We butchered both the French and English language, but learned so much from one another. We are still great friends, and he has given me an open invitation to Paris.
Although my first few weeks in France were difficult, I would never trade them for anything in the world. It made me understand the importance of being able to speak to others despite differences or challenges.
It is so easy to turn on a television or computer to avoid conversations. But communication is a major component of survival. So the next time you find yourself in an awkward situation with someone, block out life’s distractions and try to talk. You will not only build a healthy relationship, but you will also find strength.