Every summer since immigrating to the United States, I’ve spent the month of August in Bulgaria, visiting family and traveling the country. This year, I also had the chance to spend time with my sister and her partner, who were vacationing there as well. As I wrote in a previous post, I lived with Albena and Henri at their home in Grenoble, France, for nearly two months last winter, encountering some curious linguistic and cultural collisions since we communicated in three languages—English, French, and Bulgarian.
While in France, my comprehension of French greatly improved; however, I still had difficulties keeping up with the conversation in certain social situations. Dinner parties, for example, heightened my feeling of dislocation—a sensation I usually experience when my communication with a group is restrained by linguistic-cultural barriers.
Having felt such displacement before, in the United States and France, I was especially interested in observing the same situation from the other side of the lens. When Albena and Henri visited Bulgaria for an extended stay this summer, the language tables were turned, given that Henri speaks no Bulgarian. I sat with him around the traditional dinner table at a few of my family’s gatherings. I was immersed in my native language, and he, by no one’s choice or volition, was excluded, as I sometimes had been during my sojourn in Grenoble. The long-winded exchanges that took place over meals were eye-opening for me because I could relate to both the locals and the foreign guest. My relatives made sporadic efforts to include Henri in the conversations, using gestures and key words that they could string together in French and English. But it was all too easy—as it always is at such times—to get caught up in the discussion and unintentionally, but inevitably, isolate him from the group. My awareness of the poignancy of these situations allowed me (I hope it did anyway) to facilitate communication between Henri and my family. I purposed to fill in for Albena and translate for him as often as I could—which, by the way, was a great way to further my French, make Henri feel more comfortable, and help him get better acquainted with the culture.