Passing through the doors of an airplane that day in 1994, I entered a hybrid world. The signs showed me I was in Newark, but French and English floated in the air amongst the passengers, evidence that I instead hovered somewhere between two countries.
A woman settled into the seat next to mine, and I learned she was a sixty-six-year-old retired French teacher of Russian and Hungarian heritage who had studied in France in 1950.
“You remind me of myself forty-five years ago,” she said, nostalgia warming her features. She spent the next minutes scribbling sentences onto a piece of paper, then tore it from her notebook and pressed it into my hand. “A poem. Just for you.”
She had described me, a young university student on my first French adventure, and herself too, having lived out her own, decades earlier. I thanked her and folded the poem into a small square I slipped into my purse.
A world later, we disembarked at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. I was alone, and I tugged my two years of college French around me like a windbreaker in a blizzard. I collected my luggage and flagged down a taxi.
“The Montparnasse train station,” I said in French to the cab driver. He nodded and tossed my suitcase into the trunk. I crawled into the back seat and frowned. I had forgotten to tack s'il vous plaît onto my request, so I would make up for it later by thanking him twice.
Even though it was rush hour, the driver mashed his foot on the accelerator, and I clutched the seat, my thoughts racing as fast as the vehicle. Motorcyclists zipped in and out of traffic. I held my breath for the sounds of grating metal I was sure would follow. Would I die on this ride to the train station? In case I didn’t, I would do well to freshen up on my verbs, and what was the conditional tense’s third person singular for être again?
At La Gare Montparnasse, I wended my way through all the people—their small dogs attached to them like accessories—then bumbled onto the TGV, France’s intercity high-speed train, and traveled three hours to St. Brieuc where my host family welcomed me. In a flurry of hospitality and maternal concern, my French mother Paulette insisted I drink an orange juice at a nearby café, and she wouldn’t take no for an answer—or at least that’s what I thought she had said in her fast French. Minutes later, she bought me a jus d’orange, and then we were off to her home in Loudéac.
After dinner that evening, my French father Jean, Paulette, and my new siblings Phillipe and Anne gathered in the living room and opened the gifts I had brought them: a Native American dream-catcher and a bag of wild rice. They took turns holding the dream-catcher and examining it from all angles, pronouncing it a treasure.
Each day, Jean worked at his dental practice, Phillipe went to his own job elsewhere, Anne attended classes in her final year of high school, and Paulette spent her time with me. As a retired teacher, all moments were teaching opportunities with my French mother. Every day, she drove me somewhere, but since it was difficult to understand her descriptions of our destinations, I hopped into the car like an unsuspecting pet being taken to the vet. Instead of encountering shots or blood draws, however, she treated me to castles or rock formations, lace shops or boulangeries, beaches or lunches at cafés.
Paulette buzzed around the house each day too, assigning me small tasks in her rapid-fire French. She plunked a bowl of apricots in front of me and told me to tear them in half—or had me prepare other seasonal fruits—while she mixed up pastry crusts. And then we would pause for tea and fresh tartes together in the afternoons, and she would entertain me by telling me stories, rattling off snippets of Italian, or crooning Brettonne songs.
Paulette eyed me during meals, and her face lit up when I raved over certain dishes. I accompanied her to the store for each day’s shopping, and I noticed the foods I most loved had found their way back onto the grocery list. She handed me a wicker basket and half the list, ordering me to fetch the items while she gathered the rest. Sometimes at the boucherie, she’d ask me to point out a cut or kind of meat I’d never tried before, and she would buy it and prepare it that evening with homemade sauces and herbs from her garden.
One morning, Paulette stood in front of the mirror in the foyer, knotted a silk scarf at her throat, and swiped on some lipstick. She slipped into a jacket and turned to me. Apparently, we were going out again.
“Débranchez le fer,” she said. She waggled two fingers like little legs and then pointed to the stairs. I furrowed my brow, and she repeated the command. She wanted me to run upstairs and do something. When she said le fer, she moved her fist back and forth in the air. Was she making the motion of turning a steering wheel with one hand? I said the word for drive, affixing a question mark to my tone.
“Non, non, non,” she said. Then she plucked at her clothing and made the fist motion again, and I remembered. Le fer meant 'the iron'. She wanted me to run upstairs for her and do something with the iron. But what?
She held a finger in the air, then walked toward a wall, bent down, and acted out a new gesture. Because of her lack of English, there was no danger of her spoiling our game of charades by giving me the right answer. I was eager to do her bidding, if only I could decipher it…
Finally, she led me up the stairs. In the first room on the second floor stood an ironing board and an iron—still plugged into the wall.
“Débrancher le fer,” she said and unplugged it to demonstrate the action.
My eyes grew wide, and I bobbed my head. I had just gained a verb I would never forget. And I could unplug the iron in two languages now.
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*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.