A French Dinner Guest at the Traditional Bulgarian Table

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.

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Getty Images, Lori Andrews

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Velina Zabtcheva

Velina Zabtcheva was born in Sofia, Bulgaria, and moved to New Jersey at the age of 12 with no knowledge of the English language. She was placed in an ESL (English as a Second Language) program in her middle school, and through its full-immersion approach, she became proficient in English in about six months. Velina also took French courses during middle school and throughout high school. Now at Bennington College in Vermont, she is focusing on psychology and cultural studies—and continuing her study of French. In January 2011, Velina won the Rosetta Stone Communicate and Connect Scholarship (http://bit.ly/h7DEbH), out of a field of more than 700 entrants, for her essay on cultural identity and becoming bicultural. She also decided to use Bennington’s 2011 “Field Work Term” as an opportunity to live and work in Grenoble, France, for the seven-week winter session. What better opportunity to polish her French and become acquainted with the culture of France? Determined to become trilingual, she’s using Rosetta Stone Version 4 TOTALe French (http://bit.ly/e2ru1V) to practice her French conversation skills and continue her language journey.
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