Wednesday, 6 November 2013

On Being Excited the French Way by Kami L. Rice

On Being Excited the French Way
by Kami L. Rice

Yesterday, I tried for the hundredth time to use French to share my enthusiasm about some excitement or other. I have been informally polling the French for the past year, asking how to communicate this sentiment in their lovely language. I’d been told by at least one person that you can get away with saying, “Je suis excitée...” “I am excited ...” if you complete the phrase with a description of what you’re excited about—otherwise, you’re basically saying you’re feeling horny, which apparently is something the French know how to communicate.

But as “je suis excitée” escaped my mouth, my French friend wrinkled her nose across the sunny café table and noted that that’s not really the way to say it.

Yet, she couldn’t offer a better option.

“I guess the French don’t feel this kind of excitement very often,” I noted. And she nodded.

(But maybe she’s wrong. This guy is apparently super excited about something.)

Since taking up residence in the south of France last September, I have been trying to get to the bottom of this translation mystery. I have still not succeeded, as my friend’s wrinkled nose told me. I never realized how often I’m excited about things until I began trying to convey that excitement in French. And failing.

I have asked handfuls of French professors and English-speaking French friends which expression I should use to describe that forward-looking moment I’m viewing with enthusiasm and positive expectations.

My question stumps them every time.

They pause. Sometimes, for quite a while. Eventually, they try to deduce an answer, but none of them have been satisfied with their own suggestion, nor has there been consensus among them. Some of my interviewees are French friends who speak very good English. They are people who completely understand in English the sentiment I am trying so hard to communicate. Yet, still they come up empty.

This particular translation roadblock has confronted me with just how unshakably American I am, even though I like to pretend otherwise, feeling all smug when someone guesses I’m Australian or English before they correctly guess my nationality. Or smiling inside when I’m told, “You’re pretty cool for an American.”

I confess to feeling a bit of disappointment recently when a new Russian acquaintance immediately pegged me as American. But then she noted that we are all wide-eyed and welcoming. That’s what gave me away. Like every other segment of the world’s citizens, we have our faults and foibles, but we’re all right, we Americans. I’m not unhappy hailing from our side of the pond, I just long to see the world through lenses that aren’t only made in the USA.

My lingual challenge has fascinated me as it reveals the way language gives clues to culture. The regularity with which we Americans exclaim, “I’m so excited... ”, hints at the forward-looking American Dream optimism many of us ate along with our first solid foods. We didn’t check any menus to see if there were other selections available. Whereas a hearty portion of French babies seem to have been accessorizing their first baby bites with more rearview-looking traditions that see life as a bit less changeable and as containing fewer options down the road.

While my American dream is to one day be one of those world citizens who wield more than one passport, the exuberance I’ve felt over life in France has made me realize that being wired to feel and communicate excitement is one part of my American-ness I hope I never shed.

Learning a new language and simultaneously learning that not everyone in the world gets so excited about things has turned out to be a gift, one that reminds me where I come from. In stepping away from America physically, I get to better see some of its particular beauties. Who knew France and its lyrical language would manage to give me such a lovely cadeau.

Photos by Kami L. Rice

After 10 years in Nashville, freelance writer and editor Kami Rice relocated to southern France in 2012. Kami’s eclectic career has included road managing for independent musicians, advising university students, working on Capitol Hill, and pulling lots of espresso shots. She now aims to cover international stories with more nuance and less caricaturizing than mainstream media usually does. Follow her adventures on Twitter and Instagram.

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