The safety announcement is in French—seat belts fastened at all times, life vest below your seat, oxygen masks. I listen intently, reminding myself again that for the next week this is the language of operation. French, French, French, best if I put the Indonesian out of my head altogether.
But the truth is, I barely understand the announcement. I can only pick a word out here or there, not enough to understand what’s truly going on, especially if this exchange had occurred at random on a street in Morocco. I think back to high school French. I’d done well in the class, been able to have silly conversations with my desk partner, but the truth was that I hadn’t done that well on the test. Well enough, but well enough means little without practice. Random lyrics from Carmen flit around in my head.
In the Paris airport, I blink innocently at anyone who addresses me in French and wave my blue passport around until someone says something in English. When I finally find my gate, I sit and listen to Learn French podcasts. If I concentrate very hard I can understand that the speaker’s sister is a good student and still lives with her parents. I doubt this will be immediately useful. I try to remember phrases that might actually be important—Where is the bathroom? How much does it cost?—and cannot. I practice my numbers. At least I can still count.
On my second flight, the announcements are also in Arabic, a man’s pre-recorded voice discussing the use of electronics. I wonder if French with an Arabic accent will be harder or easier to understand. The man who stamps my passport speaks very good English, though, and soon enough I’m whisked into my cousin-in-law’s car and a safe cocoon of English. I watch billboards in French and Arabic whip by, but I pay them little mind.
I put off the inevitable, but by my second day it’s clear that I can’t just sit around and watch my baby cousin. I need to strike out on my own and so I do. My first test comes courtesy of a would-be guide at the door to Rabat’s set of Roman ruins. “Français?” he says.
“Uhh,” I say.
He switches to English.
“No thank you,” I say.
A truer test of my skills comes when I finally manage to hail a taxi. I am able to communicate the neighborhood but not the street and I end up calling my cousin-in-law so that she can talk to the taxi driver.
But, strangely, things improve. Saturday I go to another set of ruins with my cousin. Being a real person now, he pays for a tour guide and I trail along behind, listening to the two of them converse in French. I understand little of what the tour guide says but, surprising myself, I understand almost everything that my cousin says—an accent thing, most likely. I do a lot of listening. I listen to my cousin-in-law ask how much things cost and I file that sentence away. I listen to her buy train tickets. I listen to my cousin order food. I don’t absorb it all, but it helps.
My last night I’m on the train back from Fes. It’s a fairly long train ride, long enough for me to do some writing, to do a lot of reading, and to stare out the window for a bit. Eventually, all I do is stare out the window, reading signs for stations and wondering where we are. We should have gotten back to Rabat by now, at least I think so. Vaguely recognizing a sign for a town close by, I stand up, looking for someone to ask about Rabat. The only person available is a man who’s just stepped off the train. “Excuse me!” I call to him. In broken French, I ask about Rabat.
“After,” he says, or at least his sentence contains the word after. That’s about all I catch.
“Ohhhh,” I say, my standard response for times when I need to express an emotion but am only coming up with Indonesian words.
He sees that I don’t understand and explains. Rabat comes after this stop.
“Merci,” I say, forgetting to try my mangled version of the Arabic instead. I raise my hand and step back inside the train.