In the Zone

Before moving to Paris, and right after coming back to the States, I used to seek out opportunities to speak French and attend French-related events. Now I’m at the point where I’ve lived, worked, and traveled in France; have done things in French from making friends to dating to taking Spanish classes; and know French events in New York and New Jersey to the extent that Francophiles ask me for recommendations. When I attend one of these gatherings, it’s likely I’ll know someone there.

I’ve made a little place in the French world for about ten years. I realized that I’ve accomplished what I pursued. Perhaps because I entered my third decade last year, I’ve been ruminating on what my next (metaphorical) move will be.

That’s not to say I’ve fallen out of love with French, nor was it my only passion as a young adult. As people do, I’ve always had varied interests. But French has been a big part of my life and touched all aspects of it. Just ask my close group of American college friends here how many Frenchies and Francophones I’ve tacked on to our get-togethers in the past couple of years… at this point they’re probably as used to hearing the French accent as often as I am. They’ve met my friends visiting from France and people I know from French language activities, and they’ve joined me to an outdoor Vianney concert, having no idea who he was.

Speaking French with strangers (or anybody) and doing everyday activities in French used to be outside of my comfort zone, and each push was a victory. I remember the first time I convinced a shopkeeper in Paris to give me a refund for a battery charger that I had opened but that didn’t work. The first time I had a job interview in French. The first time I gave condolences to a French friend whose father had died—I realized I didn’t have the preset vocabulary and so really thought and formulated my own phrases.

While I speak French regularly, I’m certainly not at a native-speaker’s level—just last week, I had a work meeting in French for the first time in a long time, and I felt a little self-conscious—it was almost a surprise to feel that way again. And improving my ease and fluidity in the language will be a lifelong journey. But somehow, with my consistent efforts, French has become part of my comfort zone, and I feel a yen to push myself again. I’m still exploring and figuring out in what direction that will be.

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French Kissing

When I first started communicating with French friends in written form some years ago, I did not understand the subtleties among the possible closings of a message:

Bisous
Bises
Gros bisous
Grosses bises
Biz
Je t’embrasse or Je vous embrasse

One easy possibility was to use whatever they had written in their email or letter. If they signed off with bises, I could do the same. But I felt awkward—it didn’t feel like me since I wasn’t used to doing it. I think I subconsciously also felt weird writing “kisses,” even though these sign-offs aren’t really kisses in the way that an English-speaker thinks of kisses. So I often just typed my name after the body of the letter. It floated there all alone.

The exception was when I wrote my former host mom, who always ends her emails to me with “Je t’embrasse.” I thus ended mine with “Je vous embrasse” (yes, I use the formal ‘vous’ with her, which she established with me when we first met).

With more time in France and more emails and texts with French friends, I eventually got used to writing “bises” or “bisous” before my name according to my relationship with the recipient.

I once asked a French friend how she perceived the differences among the variations and which she chose for whom. She said that she uses “bisous” with close girl friends and “bises” with all other friends and acquaintances. She would never use “bisous” with a male friend, only with her boyfriend. However, she cautioned me that she was conservative with her bisous, whereas some of her female officemates gave written bisous left and right to fellow colleagues.

Basically, one person’s bisou is another person’s bise.

Then, of course, there was the day that a friend signed off his text with “biz,” and I thought, “business?” No, biz is a shortened form of bises. The ultimate in casual kissing. I will admit that it still tickles me when I use it occasionally.

I knew I had adapted to life in France when I found myself analyzing a guy’s chosen sign-off and wondering whether it meant anything that he had switched from using one to another.

Now I so fully embrace (or embrasser, ha ha) the use of bisous and bises that I even write them at the end of messages to non-French friends who know French because it is just a nice way to close out a letter. I refrain from but instinctively want to use them with friends who only speak English too. There is no equivalent in English, which was a problem at the beginning in terms of comprehension, but now it is it the reverse: I want an equivalent in English so I can add it to my daily usage.

There is the solution of simply following what one of my French friends does: writing “kisses” at the end of his emails to me. He doesn’t actually know that you can’t translate “bisous” into “kisses.” I am certainly not going to be the one to tell him since I get a big kick out of reading it.

Grosses bises !