Unleashed in Paris

As a semi-professional dog walker in Paris, expat Kate Gavino has found a comfortable way to learn French.

Kate Gavino | Longreads | April 2019 | 7 minutes (1,663 words)

A few years ago I had a big, fluffy chow chow-German shepherd mix named Colleen. Neither of us spoke much. She was old -- 11 or 12 -- and was so docile and well-behaved that I never had to order her around with too many commands. We lived in a companionable silence. This suited me, since words have always been best expressed through writing rather than speaking.

 Last year I moved to France when my husband got a job in Paris. The first few weeks were jarring.

You know that feeling when you say a word out loud for the first time, having only ever seen it before in a book? The moment you learn how badly you mispronounce it, the shame hits you sharp and quick, like a mosquito bite. That’s what it’s been like to learn French in Paris. Each time I try out a new word, I gird myself for the new and innovative ways I will mangle the delicate language.

While living in Paris, I started to write and draw as a full-time freelancer. I spent a lot of time working at home or at the library. I missed having a canine companion, but I knew our tiny 30-square-meter apartment wasn’t the best home for one.

After a few weeks, I enrolled in beginner French classes. My first few months of learning the language showed little improvement. I angered French speakers with my incompetence.

I wondered if some of it had to do with them seeing my Asian face and assuming I was a tourist, not here long enough to warrant the extra time spent listening to me. Then when they heard my American accent, it threw them off more. Many people didn’t know what to make of me. This ambiguity was frustrating. A thoughtful traveler makes an effort to learn a country’s customs and rules of etiquette. But when your face or skin color immediately give you away as different, you find yourself bending over backward to be polite and, more often than not, taking up as little space as possible.

A common cliché passed around in French classes and cultural integration workshops is the Peach/Coconut Dichotomy. Americans, it claims, are like peaches: tender and pleasing on the onset, but with a hard center that’s impossible for outsiders to crack. Meanwhile, the French are like coconuts: a hard, seemingly impenetrable exterior that protects a soft, sweet interior. I hoped this overly simple metaphor extended into the French language. Maybe after a couple of years of hammering away at the coconut’s exterior, I’d finally get to enjoy its meat. (Ew.)

 I’ve always had a fear of sounding stupid, no matter the language. Even in English, I’ve felt the words that come out of my mouth rarely match up with what I truly mean. Sometimes the barrier is my own anxiety or shyness, and other times, it’s just the speed of my own thoughts. Figuring out exactly what to say and then translating it into French seemed impossible.

I came across many people who had moved to Paris because, like me, their partner worked or lived here. Usually that partner was French. A Colombian woman told me she was still a beginner at the French language, but when she argued with her French boyfriend, she suddenly became fluent, her rage conjugating verbs and pulling insults from the air. I longed for a similar magic shortcut. I eventually found one. Sort of.

One day, desperate to leave the freelance dungeon of my apartment, I offered to walk a fellow expat’s dog.

We walked to the Tuileries, the sprawling park that was once a residence to monarchs and now a paradise for dogs and screaming children. The first time I called for Lola in French, she did so obediently. I was quietly stunned. I felt a weird sense of accomplishment when she had understood my French.

Even stranger, the other dog walkers at the park spoke to me. Or rather, they spoke to Lola, and I had to answer for her.

We walked back to her owner’s apartment, traipsing along the Seine, having the kind of postcard-worthy moment that so often happens in Paris. For once, I felt like I was experiencing it not as a visitor, but as someone who lived in the city. I knew once I returned Lola I would revert to being invisible or a nuisance, but I batted the thought away.

I had a flexible schedule, so I began to walk dogs for my friends and neighbors. Through word of mouth, people began recommending me as a trustworthy dog walker who kept dogs safe and texted owners dozens of cute photos from our walks. I desperately missed owning and caring for a dog of my own. Hanging out with other people’s dogs was the next best thing.

At the time, dogs were allowed almost everywhere in Paris, except, curiously enough, most parks. When I walked other people’s dogs, I’d take them to bookshops, cafes, and the occasional department store. On these walks, Parisians would stop to scratch the dogs’ ears and whisper “très mignon!”

I wondered if French people setting aside their aloof, hard coconut shells to coo at dogs represented a cultural-wide vulnerability. It reminded me of one of my favorite, albeit depressing, Parisian sites. The Cimetière des Chiens et Autres Animaux Domestiques is a gated-off pet cemetery on the outskirts of the city, the final resting place for a select number of dogs, cats, and even some lions and monkeys. When I visited a few years ago, the dog gravestones stuck out to me the most, each one erected with such sentimentality and care. Walking past countless memorials, I thought only of Colleen.

The Tuileries was overrun by dogs on weekday mornings. I’d take a dog there and engage in brief conversations with the dog owners. Once a man lost his little dachshund, Eugène, in the park’s tall hedges, and we all called out, “Viens, Eugène, viens!” while squeezing squeaky toys and holding out treats. Eventually we found him near the big arch, sniffing cigarette butts. We all cheered.

There was a man who didn’t own a dog but was at the Tuileries without fail every morning. He played with the dogs and threw sticks for them to catch. He seemed harmless to me, but the other dog owners regarded him with suspicion, like a childless man lurking around a playground. One morning, the owner of a shaggy maltese regarded the man and whispered something that sounded like “pleut,” the French word for rain. I looked up at the clear blue sky and shrugged.

Another time, I heard her say it again, this time hearing a “c” at the end of the word. Google Translate told me she was saying, “plouc,” an insult meaning slob or country bumpkin. I filed the word away with the countless others I was learning from the dog park.

A few months in, I had a small coterie of dogs I walked regularly.I walked each dog individually since, for various reasons, they all had slightly antisocial personalities. They didn’t bark or bite other dogs -- they simply preferred to be alone. So each afternoon, I walked past the big crowd of dog walkers with their extroverted, frisbee-catching packs, onto a quiet corner of the lawn hidden by a tall  hedge. Occasionally one of the social dogs approached one of mine, and I’d have to explain to its walker that my dog “préfère être seule.”

Despite this, we still crossed other dogs along the Seine and on the tiny streets leading up to our destinations. As the dogs sniffed each other, I engaged with their owners in basic French conversations that consisted of simple questions.

When addressing a dog, you use the informal form of you: “tu.” This lended an unexpected sense of closeness to my conversations with other dog walkers.I was usually so scared of offending anyone, I used the formal “votre” more often than “tu.” But dog walking was one instance when “tu” was appropriate.

Once a German shepherd without a leash lunged at the tiny schnauzer I was walking, terrifying the little dog. To my surprise, I yelled, “Attention votre chien!” to its oblivious owner. For days after, I turned the phrase in my head over and over again: “Attention votre chien!” I had yelled out a French phrase without even thinking. The pride was enough to get me through weeks of mispronunciations and bungled conjugations.

Walking the streets and quais of Paris with a dog made me more confident. The fact that I was established enough to navigate the city with a dog seemed to signal to others that I wasn’t a tourist. More people started to ask me for directions. When I walked a hyperactive papillon around the Jardin de Luxembourg, I casually befriended another woman with the same breed.

Speaking in French to these four-legged companions was easy. I knew they understood me when they sat as I said “Assieds!” My dog-friendly French unlocked something within me. It was a tiny step toward the intimacy I had with the English language, which I spoke fluently and easily, despite the anxious fog that lived in my head.

Bilingual people often say their personality changes when they switch languages. For so many months, I felt like I had no personality when I attempted to speak French. I couldn’t discuss my favorite books or make dumb jokes. I couldn’t tell someone I loved their haircut because it looked like Faye Wong’s in Chungking Express. I was rendered silent.

I doubt I’ll ever speak flawless French. But it’s been over a year, and each time a dog reste when I say restes, or vien when I say viens, it feels like an accomplishment. On some level, despite my accent, despite my mother tongue, we understand each other.

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Kate Gavino is a writer and illustrator. She is the creator of Last Night’s Reading, which was compiled into a published collection by Penguin Books in 2015. Her work has been featured in BuzzFeed, Lenny Letter, Oprah.com, Rookie, and more. She was named one of Brooklyn Magazine’s 30 Under 30. Her second book, Sanpaku, was published by BOOM! Studios in 2018.

 

Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands