New country, new city, a new language, and if you’re lucky, a couple of friends. I was delighted to have the chance to live in a place of endless possibilities, with inspiration found at every corner, and where the 1910 law that should prevent train delays - is meant to be broken.
"Imaginer c’est choisir", said someone at some point, so I allowed myself to be almost fantastically naïve. Angels in white stones, and palaces, and cheese, and the charming people, and all the history this country encapsulates would make my dreams come true. “Bonjour Madame” was something I would hear daily. I was about to move to France one day.
I started learning French at some point, in my early 30s. I was working full time, and it was demanding, but I needed to take some time for myself. I found a master student who advertised in the newspaper that she gives French lessons, so once per week I would take my bike and go to her place, just to hear her laugh 40 minutes out of 50. I was terrible - but really terrible - at learning French. However, because my father is fluent in French and because I know some French songs, I imagined I will pick it up in 3 months. I was going to be the best speaker of the French language in the woooooorld!
I think it was the middle of June 2015 when I had my first learning session, and the girl started the lesson with the alphabet. I was certain that my journey will be smooth and prosperous and remarkable. I had time until November, when it’s my father’s birthday, to wish all the best in his favorite language.
I laughed so hard imagining him looking at me with his mouth open, not knowing what to say about my brilliant accent and my easiness in speaking a language he spent so many years improving. I was about to blow his mind! The first weekend of July I was home, and we watched a documentary in French and I kept asking questions on how to pronounce words. “You have to say it like this,” my father talked slowly, “No, like this, Ioana. Noooo, Ioana, listen. Like this!”
Pffff, I wanted to tell him that in three months I will tell him how to pronounce words, but didn't want to ruin the surprise. I just laughed quietly being proud of – what I thought – was going to be my big announcement.
When I was around 15 years old, my father was in France for a meeting, and his workmate said by the end of their encounter that he had never – but never – heard someone speak French as a second language so well. He sounds like a French person. I mean, can you imagine? My father learned French from books and by writing letters and speaking to a cousin who learned it at school, but my hometown is not known for its French legacy. And we all know how proud French are of their country and language, so that was a huge compliment.
How could I, the daughter of my father, in the age of the internet and all, not learn French in a heartbeat? I even took my grammar book with me at a picnic, in July, when I met my friends near the Bega river. Of course I saw this as a perfect opportunity to ask questions (as at least one of them learned French in school), and they encouraged me and told me how proud they are of me for giving this a go. I was playing it cool, though, and didn't want to shout out loud that I was going to rock this. Undoubtedly I was going to rock this.
It was one Saturday date at Starbucks, months later, when Alina and Petro heard my complaints and tried to make room between my fears. I was very close to crying at that terrace, in front of (maybe) 20 people. Have you ever felt like all your efforts were in vain? Not only I was feeling like a complete failure, but it was also hard to accept the fact that I, from all people, can’t learn French. I understand Italian - I wouldn’t dare to say I speak it, but if I were to be in Italy for a couple of months, I wouldn’t starve, and I would be able to have a conversation in a bar. I learned Latin in school, and at the final test, my teacher said “Magna Cum Laude!” And I speak Romanian as a mother tongue, hello!?!?
“I won’t be able to move to France and work there without speaking the language, I...I...I…” I couldn’t even find the words to express my feelings in clear sentences, and that frustrated me even more, so Petro and Alina looked at each other and said: “Of course you can, you’re Ioana. You can do anything!!” I shrugged my shoulders and said softly: “…I can do anything, yet…l can’t learn French…” They took my hand and we went shopping – or at least selfie shopping – we tried out summer hats in a small shop, we put on red lipstick in the make-up department, and made photos until the security guard kicked us out, as we, apparently, were not allowed to take pictures inside the shop. (Well, best of luck in having customers, you fools! Do you know anything about women and their behavior when they go shopping?) Alina, however, posted a photo of me on her Instagram page with the caption “Attack and conquer” and she said this should be my reminder that I can rule the world. I went home that day feeling better, and I called my father and told him I tried to learn French, but it’s just too hard to read. And when I explained that my brain keeps going back to German (and, rarely, to English), he laughed: “I figured as much”. I laughed and the disappointment of not being good enough vanished.
After three months of trying to learn this language, I was only able to evolve from “blablablablaouiblabla” to “bla blablabla oui blabla.” I continued to listen to French songs, to watch French movies, and turn to my father whenever I needed a translation. I could, at least, distinguish some words if I heard someone speaking French, and that was it.
For some unknown reason, my brain only associates German as a foreign language.
English is somehow there, in a drawer, and I don’t think much about it. I know my grammar needs improving, and I know that sometimes I don’t use all the words I should be using, and I had this constant battle where I put "it" when there's already a subject in the sentence. It goes something like this: “French it’s on my ‘Languages I need to learn’ list.” No matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to discard this error; I’ve been trying for years, and it just slips into a conversation or a text. I no longer worry about it, though. I make mistakes and that's all right. It's how I learn.
But with German, well…German is something else! It was a weekend getaway in Rome with Gabs when we got lost and I asked for directions. The sweet lady with whom I had this conversation in Italian went away laughing after I said “Ich verstehe!!” Gabs kicked me and said in Romanian: “Dude, that’s German, we’re in Italy!” I immediately switched back to Italian, and Gabs was delighted that I can ask for a table for two when we entered a restaurant, or how easy it was for me to find a good ice-cream place, etc. This was all I could be proud of, as Gabs speaks English better than some native speakers, and finished the French Duolingo lessons twice, I think.
I was determined to give learning a second try. I wanted to move to France soon and then call my friends and tell them how I am ouioui-ing my way through everything. I was going to be the best French speaker in the universe! But first, before eating croissants everyday, I needed to fly to Berlin. Why Berlin, you ask? I am more than happy to tell you why.
By November 2016 I finished my portfolio and asked a friend to translate my CV in German, while another friend made sure that the English version doesn’t include sentences that have many “it’s its it’s”.
In December I started to look for jobs, sent a few resumes to see how the market is, and told some people that soon I’m gonna leave Romania and gain some experience someplace else.
-Nope, not in England, no, I need to go somewhere to learn a new language. Do you know what Federico Fellini said? “A different language is a different vision of life.”
-So why not London, then? Wouldn’t that make more sense? “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life”, so it’s not like there is nothing for you to learn there.
-London is not an option for me at this time. I also don’t want to go back to Vienna...
Although I needed a fresh start, I wasn’t sure about where exactly this new start should be. I asked a friend to meet me for tea on a sunny Saturday afternoon in Timisoara, and told her that one of my dreams is to live in Portugal and learn how to surf. But before doing this, I needed to make sure I will be able to support my hobbies while doing a fun job, or, at least, a good one. Portugal wasn’t booming in architecture back then, as my friend explained, and this is why she and her Portuguese husband (who is also an architect) decided to move to Romania. She sent me some links where jobs were posted, and promised that her husband will give me some contacts to get accommodated anywhere in Portugal. I also talked to a friend who lives in France, and she and her husband have friends who are architects, but they were sorry they couldn’t hand me a job on a silver platter. I would be, however, the first to know if they hear anything about an opening. Although I should consider learning French before moving.
January 2017 came, and I met with Anca and Andreea in a bookstore. My friend Patricia was working there and I always chose to go to this bookstore. It is cozy and you can order tea, and Patricia is just a lovely presence all the time. There are a few people I trust as much as I trust her (and her judgment), but when Anca and Andreea said I should pick a book for my upcoming birthday, I refused. “Listen, this is very sweet of you, but I will move soon, don’t know where, and I need to take as little luggage as possible. I don’t want to carry books with me.” “Oh, shut up, you’re not moving tomorrow, just pick a book and read it before you go. Ask your friend to pick one for you if you’re undecided,” they argued.
So I did: I followed Patricia around the bookstore, being again fascinated by her outfit, the way she makes books (and now bread) to be the most interesting things in the universe. Do you know that part in a movie where everything is in slow motion, and the actors move around as if they are part of a ballet show? That was Patricia every day in that little shop. She bent her knees to pick a book from the lower shelf, and said: “This!!! This is for you!” I thanked her and returned to Andreea and Anca, who were content I listened to them. I took a photo of them and posted it on Instagram with the caption “They keep interrupting my irrational fears with positive and warm thoughts. #omgsorude”
Three days later I called my friends to tell them I finished reading the book and that I will move to Berlin.
I’ll tell you the name of the book, why France had to wait, some stories about the days when I replied in Romanian to my German-speaking colleagues, how I took improv classes in English and why I am now going back to the Italian language. Ci vediamo presto! Ciao!