Elizabeth Briel, Travel Artist

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How I Translated Failure in French Class to Success

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Plaque on the Long Bien bridge, Hanoi Vietnam

We never know how the choices we make will shape the future. I wouldn’t have ever imagined my dislike of French language classes would eventually lead me to work in Morocco, Vietnam and Cambodia with projects that required fluency in the language.

I completed a Fine Arts program within a well-regarded public American university; we were expected to have a thorough education along with our arts focus. This included competency in a foreign language to graduate. Most fellow students complained, or just buckled down and sweated through it – which didn’t appeal to me because I’d barely passed French classes in high school. Wealthy students enrolled in expensive study-abroad programs. This wasn’t an option: I paid for my own schooling and couldn’t afford the expensive tuition. Instead I created my own program [and worked 40-60 hours a week at retail and hotel jobs to build up my savings].

In 1998 I studied the language at a university in France, and sent drawings and paintings home to my painting instructors. This enabled me to complete painting coursework while living there and on the road in Belgium, London, and Eastern Europe during school holidays. I was able to see firsthand many of the artworks by northern European artists that had inspired me in the past. While the language courses were helpful, I really learned French by spending time in clubs and bars and flirting in cafes with friends who were native French speakers.

After graduation I was a full-time artist with both studio and apartment rents to pay: lots of freedom but not a lot of cash staying in my pocket. So when designer friends told me they were looking for a translator for the antique markets at Avignon and Paris, I jumped at the chance. We spent two weeks on trains, in vans and junk shops and collectors’ gardens, rooting out good deals and negotiating terms and prices. Many of the dealers spoke some English, but were much more relaxed dealing with a French-speaking americaine than with deux americains.

Several years later I was offered a trip in Morocco as a translator with the large tour company Grand Circle Travel, and accompanied a local guide from Marrakesh to Fez to the Sahara. The highlight of our trip was a dinner of a dozen elderly americans with a local family in Fez. We ate tagine and flatbread with our right hands. Afterwards we sipped sweet mint tea and I translated both sides of an intensive Q&A about aspects of American/Moroccan culture, from US gangs to majoun, a delectable [so I hear] cannabis nougat.

Eventually, my curiosity about manifestations of French culture – among many other interests – led me to Cambodia, where after starting my own program, I eventually worked with the Angkor Photo Festival, teaching photography to street children. It is a French-run festival, and while my experience with teaching photography was the reason I was approached, my facility in the language helped make everything happen.

Most recently I was drawn to Vietnam and photographed this Frenchman’s folly-turned-success, for another French-run project: the Long Bien bridge festival. One of my prints of the bridge sold this week at auction for US$350, well above my estimate of $200-300 [based on my current print prices].

You never know where this road will take you. But first: you’ve got to get started on it.

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2 Responses to How I Translated Failure in French Class to Success

  1. Cynthia says:

    Totally fascinating and impressive. I love hearing your story of how French got you around the world!

  2. Pingback: Out of the box « expat+HAREM, the global niche

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