Now, you’re on a bobsled, and it’s snowing out, and it’s cold. Okay, go!
Except last night at my theater class it was more like, “Now, every sentence you say has to have the word ‘lunettes’ [glasses] in it.” “Okay, say ‘Les courgettes ne poussent pas en hiver’ [zucchini don’t grow in the winter], but say it while laughing/crying/angry/sad/snooty.”
Improv has never been my strong suit. I like words on a page. I like notes on a page. When I was a freshman in college and had to take Keyboard Skills, we had a unit on improvisation; I used to write down chord progressions and kind of do a Mozart-type walking bass and some kind of melody…it was always a bit of an out-of-body experience for me, I never remembered what I had done afterwards. But my professor always said, “Really good, Anne! You really captured a mood with that melody…” What? An A+? I accept.
And when I took theater classes, mostly at summer camp, but a couple of times in school as well, improv exercises made me incredibly self-conscious. Some people are funny onstage. I like to think I’m funny in life–but I always felt like my contribution to an improv game stopped the whole thing dead. Mind you, up to this point I’ve only ever done improv in English.
So when Gilbert, my theater professor (whom I ran into when Mom and David and I were at the Grand Épicerie on Monday), was like, “Tout le monde sur scène pour faire un impro!”, I blanched. It’s hard enough for me to come up with the right thing to say in French in my day-to-day dealings with people, so trying to come up with a quick response when a native French speaker is bearing down on me spewing about a million words per minute, none of which I understand, is well nigh impossible.
But there were a few moments in class last night where I really felt the language just come flying out. We were doing that exercise where one person takes a pose to start the scene, and then somebody else comes in and changes it based on what they think it looks like. At one point, Camille and Violaine were crouched on the ground as though they were picking something up, and I rushed in and shouted “Ne mange pas ça!” (Don’t eat that!). I was like…huh. I did something right. I can in fact improvise in French. And whenever I tell Gilbert that I just have no idea what is being said to me, he says, “Pas grave! Pas grave!” (No big deal!)
I should have known that I’d end up being quite good at it, since I’m always talking about how much of life abroad is, in fact, a great big improv game. You don’t need to understand every word coming out of somebody’s mouth in order to understand them and come up with a reply. The restaurant you planned on going to isn’t open? Pas grave, pick another one. They’ve run out of chestnut macarons? Pas grave, almond praline will be delicious. My voice teacher asks me if I want to sing “Venite inginocchiatevi?” Of course I do! That Italian patter text is totally sight-readable, right? Just the other day I was on the métro with Mom; she got off at Concorde and I said, oh, I’ll change trains at Châtelet…completely forgetting which direction we were going. In a split second I changed my plans, got off the train at Étoile and hopped on the RER. You have to be mentally pretty nimble to negotiate life in a foreign country, and it’s taken me five and a half months not to feel like my brain is encased in Jell-O most of the time (I still have my moments, though…).
It’s the little things that take the most energy. It’s when I’ve taken the train all the way to École Militaire and walked eight blocks only to find that the American Library is closed. It’s when I’m hungry before theater class, so I go to the ATM, get some money, and hightail it to the boulangerie on the corner of Port-Royal and Rue Saint Jacques…only to find that it is inexplicably closed. On a Wednesday. Pas grave–there’s another one a couple of blocks away, in the wrong direction.
People–including my mother–often say that I seem to be handling everything really well, but honestly, most of the time I’m just faking it. It’s terrifying and lonely and difficult, every single day. But I do my best. Maybe it’s genetic. They don’t have bobsleds in San Juan.