The man pulled a wooden peel from the fire, extracting the loaves—round and crusty with floury tops.
My host mother Paulette nudged me, her eyes shining. “It’s just how they made it in the old country.”
The special trip for bread to the tiny neighboring village had been worth it. I contemplated le pain, every meal’s companion and the daily sustenance that moved the French world. Bread was a clock too; when I ventured out, I could tell by the number of people scurrying about for it—none of it wrapped in cellophane like the loaves in the United States—if mealtime was near.
I spied a man walking down the sidewalk, a baguette tucked under one arm. He saw another man—likely a good friend—and his face lit up. He bopped his buddy over the head with the bread, and they laughed and talked. A woman pedaled by on her bike, a baguette strapped to the front of it. And Paulette chucked loaves into the back seat of her car with as much care as one would toss a sweater.
But le pain wasn’t my only fascination; food, in general, held the keys to the culture, and I would learn more by eating anything I was offered.
“Somehow when students come, they suddenly turn into vegetarians,” my father Jean said with a chuckle one night at dinner. Like Paulette, he only spoke French, and whenever he turned to me, his eyes grew large, and he cranked up his volume, forming words slowly for my learning ear. “But you would make a good French person; you like all the foods and cheeses.”
One day, Madame Andrée Pinot, a family friend, came for afternoon tea. The spring day was cool, but the table on the patio basked in a pool of sunlight, so Paulette and I entertained our guest outdoors. The three of us nibbled on pieces of apple tarte as the chickens meandered in the grassy distance. Daisy Belle, the family dog, curled into a donut at Paulette’s feet.
Paulette told her friend about our trip to the poissonnerie for fresh fish that morning, which sparked something in Madame Andrée’s eyes, and she recounted her own story. Since the word pêcheur meant both fisherman and sinner, she said, as a child she had thought confession to the priest was only for the men who caught the fish. She tittered, a hand splayed on her chest, and Paulette let out a chortle.
Just then, Daisy Belle zipped out from under the table and lunged at one of the chickens. Paulette flew from her chair, trilling and whooping and clapping her hands at the animal who had zeroed in on one of her beloved birds. I had thought my French mother’s tongue was lightning fast before, but this time her words streaked through the atmosphere in one long unintelligible trail. In the end, some feathers were lost, but the chicken lived, and Daisy Belle got a stern reprimand.
That evening at dinner, Paulette told the family about the dog’s afternoon escapade. Jean, who used dinnertime to teach me new words, asked if I knew the meaning of the dog’s name. I had always wondered why they had chosen an English name, so I repeated it—Daisy Belle—saying it was a type of pretty flower.
“No, it means a degree of loudness,” he said. Then as usual, his eyes widened as he watched me try to digest the new definition.
I furrowed my brow and shook my head. He grew a grin, and I thought harder. What was I missing?
Then revelation struck: The dog’s name wasn’t Daisy Belle, but Décibel—like the English word decibel. I spelled it aloud to be sure I had it right.
“You’re easier to understand than the English when they speak French,” he said, serving me a portion of approval even more delicious than the Coquilles Saint-Jacques on my plate.
At the basilica in the town of Josselin on one of our day jaunts, Paulette showed me a fountain where people came to drink the water and be healed. She didn’t mind that I reached for the communal cup that dangled from a chain near the statue of Mary and the Christ Child, dipped in, and drank, but that was unusual; she normally fussed over my health. If I opened a window in my bedroom, she worried I’d catch a flu, and she feared I’d become sick from eating mussels. I padded through her house barefoot, but she said her stone floors were too cold for that. The day she took me to the family’s second home in Carnac—nestled beside the Gulf of Morbihan—she said I could enjoy the beach if I covered up.
“Vous aurez un coup du soleil!” she said, holding a finger in the air and frowning.
“Don’t worry,” I told her. “I won’t get sunburned.”
But permutations of the same conversation speckled the warm afternoon. I was too fair for the sun, she said. I would suffer a sunstroke if I wasn’t careful, she said. What if I became ill from too much exposure? she said. Finally, I ambled off to the water’s edge, but in deference to ma mère, I toted the beach umbrella with me.
Shops, markets, restaurants, and museums—scenes straight out of my French textbooks, minus the vocabulary labels—filled my three weeks in Brittany. Soon, I would catch the train back to Paris to connect with other American students with whom I would share the next two months. I would miss my French mother’s art and history lessons, along with her ooh-la-las, ho-la-las, or ho-dee-dos, which marked our outings. My new family had embraced me with lavish generosity and open arms, but my time with them was nearing its end.
“C’est dommage!” Paulette said, waving away talk of my departure. “It’s too bad!”
My sister Anne and I headed upstairs to our bedrooms on my last night in their home. But first, we paused in the living room to say goodnight to her father.
“Bonne nuit, mon père,” she said.
Then he replied in his loud, slow French, so I could understand too. “Bonne nuit, my daughters.”
*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.