Reflexive Verbs and Self-Reflection in Paris

By Rebecca Phillips

“Non, Rebecca,” sighed Vanessa in exasperation, “we worked on this last time. On attend quelque chose ou on s’attend à quelque chose. Do you understand the difference?” My oral practice session on Wednesday morning had gone well enough, but I was apparently still having trouble making phrases with the reflexive verb s’attendre à (to expect).

S’attendre à”is created by adding se in front of the verb attendre (to wait). The French reflexive verbs, including se rendre compte que (to realize), se souvenir de (to remember), se fâcher (to get angry), se tomber amoureux de (to fall in love with), etc., describe actions and emotions that are all self-referential. In such constructions, the meaning of the base verb can change completely—as it does with s’attendre à. If I am waiting for the bus, j’attend le bus, but if I expect my friend to meet me at the bus stop, je m’attend à y retrouver une amie. Expecting, then, is linguistically distinguished as a modified version of waiting, made personal by the reflexive se.

Sometimes I find it difficult to know instinctively which form of a verb to employ, and often I get bogged down in complicated past tense reflexive verb constructions with internal prepositional phrases and multiple pronouns. But no matter how justified my confusion may be (I am, after all, not French), it is extremely frustrating to be making the same basic errors over and over again. I had expected more from myself.

According to Sylvie, my head language teacher, the fact that I am very enthusiastic and talk a lot in class is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, she said, the only way to learn to speak French is to speak it as much as possible and to be unafraid of making mistakes in the process. On the other, the fact that I talk so much and so quickly makes it difficult for my teachers to correct all of my errors, so I wind up repeating the same mistakes, thus ingraining them into my Anglophone head to the point of no return.

I have been in Paris for exactly seven months, during which time the fall and winter quarter study abroad programs have come and gone. Now that the spring students have arrived, I have begun to ask myself (me demander) what I have to show for the months of experience acquired before their arrival.

This completely unnecessary anxiety attack stems from the fact that I believe I have something to prove. When I made the choice to leave the University of Chicago for a year, it wasn’t because I didn’t want to be there—on the contrary, there were a lot of compelling reasons for me to stay—but rather because I thought that there was something I simply had to do that could only be done in Paris. I wanted to become fluent in French, to be successful in my classes, to find a play to translate for my B.A., and to force myself to live independently outside of a campus social structure.

In my application to the program last winter, I wrote that I didn’t just want to go to Paris, but that I needed to go to Paris. If I return home to my friends and family and I am not a changed woman, does that mean I have failed?

As my return home to the States approaches, I have a tendency to waste time agonizing over the museums that I haven’t visited frequently enough, the foods I haven’t tried yet (not many, but there are a few), and the neighborhoods I haven’t explored. I try to figure out what I can say or do or wear to prove to everyone else that this year was worth it and that I have achieved all of my goals, believing that there is something or someone else I am somehow expected to become. But the truth is that I am the only one who has these kinds of expectations for myself.

Instead of worrying about all of the things I think I ought to accomplish in the weeks that I have left, I should just relax and enjoy it. The purpose of a study abroad experience, it has become clear, is not related to what people think of me when I get back, so all I have to do is live it.

I guess that I hadn’t really understood the difference between attendre and s’attendre à all that well after all. I was waiting for my expectations to realize themselves, but I hadn’t expected the reality of waiting.