Dinnertimes were more than the food set in front of us. They were vocabulary lessons that ventured far beyond the textbooks. My host mother, Jacqueline, chose our time at the table to tell Andie and me about the fickle coastal weather, the functionality of shutters, and the neighbors' grating habits. Above all, though, she preferred medical topics. In one evening alone, she spoke of glandular problems, skin discolorations, what was good for the kidneys, and horror stories about vomiting exchange students. If everything hadn't sounded so beautiful in the Romance language, the duck pâté may not have gone down.
Sometimes Monsieur Germanaud joined us for dinner, and on those nights, Jacqueline's favorite subjects fluttered away on the sea breezes of the nearby Bay of Biscay. The man’s eyes shone as he told us about French poets, authors, music, and history. Then I thought about Amie's host home across town and her French dad—always the jokester—who ate dinner, shirtless, wiping his mouth with a piece of baguette which served as an edible napkin.
Monsieur Germanaud and Jacqueline shared three grandchildren who cropped up around the house as often as the green beans Monsieur came daily to pick. While the two preteen grandsons were watchful but aloof, five-year-old Collette became my shadow.
One evening while Andie and I did homework at the table in our living quarters, Collette pattered downstairs to show us her picture book. I pushed aside my work; sentences could wait. Collette's book of obscure animals beckoned us. The little girl slowed her words and taught us names of creatures I didn't even recognize in English. As she quizzed us, I stifled a smile and repeated the words. Though short in stature, her patience was long. And she doled out praise when we got the pronunciation right.
"Now I have to do my homework," I told her at last.
Collette pulled up a chair next to me, propped her elbows on the table, and rested her chin on her fists. She eyed me as I worked. I smiled at her between sentences.
"Can you say the word for this?" She tapped on the bottle of water next to my books.
I chuckled. "La bouteille d'eau."
"Very good,” she said in a kindergarten teacher voice. Then she widened her eyes and leaned in, laying a hand on my back. "Do you know how to open a bottle, or do you need me to help you?"
One day after school, Amie came over to my house to swim. She stayed a few hours, and then Monsieur Germanaud offered to drive her home so she wouldn't have to take the bus. The next day at school, she told me the story of her car ride.
As my French dad navigated the late afternoon traffic the previous day, his face had brightened as he spoke of Don Quixote and how the play was slated to be performed in the city square at the end of the summer. He then mentioned his two adult daughters, les jumelles, and how they loved theater too.
"Les jumelles?" Amie said. "I don't know that word."
"Ah, but let me show you." He signaled and made a quick U-turn, zipping onto another street. After a couple of minutes, he parked in front of a house and beamed at Amie. "Here's my daughter's place. She'll help you learn what the word means."
His gaze first settled on a squad car parked in the driveway and then on the house. His smile dissolved. Amie took in the scene too, her confusion at the word les jumelles dwarfed by what she saw.
The man's daughter—in only a t-shirt and underwear—stood outside her front door, speaking with a male police officer. The woman told a story with her hands, and then she laughed. Monsieur and Amie watched from the car, their brows furrowed.
"Hm," Monsieur Germanaud said after a beat. "Let's get you home." He shifted the vehicle into drive and zoomed away.
As soon as she returned home, Amie made a beeline for a dictionary. Les jumelles meant 'twins'. If only there were a reference book, though, for life's other mysteries.
At one of our last dinners in France, while Jacqueline spoke of abscesses, the désagréable symptoms of menopause, mucous skin (direct translation), and tragic car accidents, my mind drifted to the big picture of my travels. I saw dogs in the grocery stores, beggars in the metro, musicians on the streets. I recalled cafés, baguettes, cathedrals, postcards, the ocean. I would miss my first family who had wrapped me in their excellent care and my second family too—a broken French home that maybe wasn't so broken after all.
My friends and I had danced and swum and eaten our way through a glorious country. We had shopped and studied and sunned. We had bumbled through awkward social moments in a new culture and blundered through conversations over some of the world’s most delectable meals. We had endured misunderstandings and stomach pain and a lack of toilet paper. We had been tutored by a five-year-old who probably thought we had more than one significant challenge. But we had loved France with all our hearts.
And she had loved us back.
*Miss an installment of the blog? Or want to catch the story from the beginning? Visit http://www.tamarajorell.com/blog-entries-by-date
*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.