Parlez-vous Français?

“Its OK not to know, its not OK not to try.” Erwan Sorel,  CEO/Instructor at L’École Française

To illustrate what its like to live in a country where you don’t speak the language, I am going to share a story with you. I had an experience while working as an actor in Chicago that was so humiliating, I didn’t even write about it on the blog I created to write about humiliating things that happened to me as an actor in Chicago.

I was invited to a dance call with Chicago Shakespeare Theatre for their production of Timon of Athens. I had previously made it through several rounds of call backs for the chorus of Follies, and though I didn’t end up booking the job I was encouraged by the experince. Naturally I was thrilled to be invited back for another shot. The audition invitation made it very clear they were looking for dancers with a strong ballet background.

I should have realized what I was in for from the start. The audition was run by Nicolas Blanc, ballet master at the Joffery Ballet, many of the auditionees were his students. I’ve always thought of myself as an actor who dances, but would never dream of putting myself in the same category as professional ballerinas. Either way, I found myself in the midst of them trying to survive the most demanding dance audition I’ve ever experienced.

During barre work I could get by, but once we moved to the floor I was completely lost. The instructions were coming quickly with very little demonstration as I tried desperately to follow the other girls. I might as well have been spinning in circles singing “The hills are alive!” for all I was accomplishing. After a few terrible passes I was humiliated and couldn’t look anyone in the face. A pee-wee foot ball player in the super bowl is less out of his league than I was at that audition. I seriously considered quietly slipping out the door, getting into my car, and never auditioning for anything ever again. It seemed unprofessional to leave in the middle of an audition that wasn’t going well, so I bit my lip and waited for the cut. When Blanc mercifully gave me the nod that told me I was free to leave, I went into my car and had the good cry I needed. Its difficult to think about it even now, three years later.

Living in a country where you don’t speak the language well is a little bit like being at that audition again. The people around me all seem to be part of a beautiful dance, and I am trying desperately to keep up. Today I had to visit the bank, the post office and a locksmith. Simple errands at home, but here they require an hour of preperation. I have to translate what I need to say, record it in my little notebook for reference and practice saying it until its memorized.

Parisians, I feel, have gotten a bad rap. Since my arrival the Parisians I’ve encountered have been overwhelmingly kind and helpful. The man at the bank spoke French with me until I had exhausted my knowledge, then was happy to transition to English. The locksmith and postal worker didn’t speak a work of English, but they smiled at my remedial French and pantomimed until we understood one another. I think their behavoir is in part because its obvious I’ve made an effort to preapre myself for these interactions.

The people of France aren’t scoffing or demanding I leave or learn French right away, the same way the choreographer at that audition didn’t demand I leave or single me out by cutting me early. I feel now that when the choregrapher nodded to me, he was not only releasing me, but acknowledging my effort.

French is like ballet, it is painfully beautiful, achingly etherial, and incredibly difficult to master. Unfortunately I’ll never be a ballerina as I once dreamed, but I can make my dream of learning French come true. So when things go bad you don’t leave, you don’t cry, you do the best you can and stick it out because thats how you learn.

If you live in the Chicago area and are interested in learning French, please visit L’École Française. The instructor creates a fun and safe learning enviornment. Classes are convenient, enjoyable and afforardable! 

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