So here I am at Fouquet’s. The menu is not extensive and neither is my French. When it’s time to order water, I always forget if it’s de l’eau or d’eau. Frustrating but pretty, this language. Let’s think of language as a meal. If Italian was the main course with its long rolling sounds, like a slurp of soup or a noodle stretching between your mouth and the fork, French would be dessert. Light and crisp, flitting away before you’ve caught the taste of rose or caramel on your tongue. I’m here for a meal, but really, I’m here for dessert. Fouquet’s millefuille.
They’re playing Harry Nilson’s “Lime in The Coconut” in this 20th century brasserie, which reminds me that the French culture is more than just Edith Piaf’s vintage hair-curler voice. The clichés happen to be in abundance and I would be learning to do away with them one by one on this trip.
But it’s the moment of reconciliation at last. The plane has landed. The hotel has been found, the stuff dumped. My order has been made. What else is there to think about but the heartbreak that’s been sitting there staring at me unblinkingly all along? Who comes to France to heal from heartbreak? I can either carry on holding on to sadness like it’s that Japanese boyfriend pillow, or I can allow myself to be canon-balled into the big airy nothingness out there and from it conjure the courage to love myself on my own. It’s a painful and scary notion. So I do neither. Instead I enjoy my 75 Euro meal! Gulp!
Why am I in France? (as if you had to have a reason to be in France!) I am on my way to Sancerre where I be will admitted to a nuthouse called Coeur de France, school of language. This is where crazy people like me meet to attempt to learn the language at an older age.
So here’s my story with French. I’ve been wanting to speak the language since I was a child. My father was a surgeon at King Faisal’s Specialist Hospital in Riyadh. I lived at the time inside the campus in a cozy little home. In front our house was a big rotund glade of grass where we played with the children from the other doctors’ villas. One of the neighbor’s came up to me and spoke to me in French. She went to my school. She was in the lofty French program. I was in boring old English. I was immediately taken by the light nasal sounds that French made. It sounded like something unattainable, like the first burst of floral scent when you unwrap a bar of soap. I don’t know if it was her hauteur or my own self-consciousness, but French immediately sounded to me like an exclusive club I could never be a part of.
Then, there was the girl. I don’t even remember her name or which school she went to. I met her at a pool party that I was reluctant to join. I didn’t know anyone at the party. As if for a socially anxious child, that was not enough, the girl happened. She was tall with a chocolate brown pixie cut and flawless white skin that was nothing like my own commonplace complexion, which resembled half-baked bread. And she spoke to her French teacher, with whom she seemed to be a favorite, in sounds that were ethereal. They flitted across the pool like ballerinas dressed in peonies.
I didn’t understand what she was saying but I understood the attitude that seemed beyond my grasp and I felt ever more awkward and wrong-footed. I decided that I hated English. It didn’t even occur to me to hate Arabic because Arabic was implanted deep underneath my skin at birth. It was not a language to me. It was my thoughts, my breath, my eyesight. It was how I communicated with my family and everyone else in that unyielding unromantic city.
I am on the train now to Cosne-Sur-Loire, which, it turns out, is pronounced Cuh-n Soor Lwahr not coz-ney soor-lwahr. The “s” in “Cosne” is not pronounceable. You just leap frog directly to “n”. Rookie mistake.
I was about to cry when I sat down because I felt lost in the train station with not a fortitude of French to help me feel sure that I had indeed hopped onto the right train. What would I do if it was the wrong train and, come 11 o’clock, I was in the wrong town? What if I could not find a train back to make it to check-in time at Sancerre? It was the weekend and I would have nowhere to go. What if I never find my way back? In French? I was shaken and deeply humbled by the blessing of language. This would never have been a fear of mine in the US or the UK. I blinked my tears away and reminded myself that everything is ok and always will be.
I am counting on the day French seeps into my subconscious and I can understand the train conductor’s speech even in my sleep! I sink into the seat and I hope to all that is good and holy that at 11:01 I would arrive at Cosne-Sur-Loire and nowhere else. In the meantime, I am soothed by the verdant landscape and my own reflection in the glass. I sit back and reflect that I really do love trains.
I had a lovely taxi ride from Cosne Station to Sancerre. The driver was kind enough to speak patiently to me in French and I was mesmerized by my own initial fluency. A host of all the forces of language gathered within me as I put my shame and shyness aside. Years of scraps that I had learnt from on-and-off teachers, books, songs, even podcasts came together and I spoke French! Well. As well as a beginner’s guide to French can.
We rolled by bright yellow fields of Colza, French for rapeseed flowers. I felt my skin melting until it disappeared into the softness of the world all around, so ripe and moist, tumbling forever onward and all around in sheets of green and silver clouds. So much tumbling! The Earth was almost in the folds of the sky and the sky was almost peering through the hills. I figured that language between souls is what creates landscapes of communication, so replete with life. You can never be truly alive with someone unless you spoke the same language.
My apartment at the chateau is not ready. I have to wait for hours, seeking shelter in the rain in one of these restaurants that look out into the town square, which is no bigger than the courtyard of my high school.
Sancerre is an antique village on the crest of a hill. If you want to go back down to the rest of civilization, you would have to take a car or walk a long path of spiraling road into hundreds of vineyards and colza fields. The village is a fading congregation of houses, shops and inns with gabled roofs, where the coq still points the way to the wind. It’s like a faded tattered page that you’re afraid to turn in case it ripped. The houses are arranged in no particular order. They’re jumbled together for warmth in case the cold came to Sancerre and decided to stay forever. You will see white shutters framing the windows, lace through them, and spots of red underneath, which are pots of what I imagine to be geraniums. The roads and alleys barely fit one car. They rise and fall, twist and unfurl like a ribbon on the floor and, occasionally, give you a glimpse of the distant patches of countryside below.
At last, I am shown into Le Marguax. My apartment has a name. I’ve always wanted to stay in one of these places where the rooms have names. It also has a kitchen a dining room, a bathroom, a bedroom and a small entrance. It is furnished with a generally cloying quaintness; extremely old-fashioned furniture, striped pink wallpaper, red curtains and lace on the window panes. The chateau itself is really charming, a fairytale mansion, not even bigger than our house in Riyadh. It looks like something from a Disney amusement park but without the 24-hour maintenance.
Regardless of all that, the best feature in the apartment is the sunlight and the view through the windows of a robust clump of wisteria over the fence. Wisteria is planted everywhere here. They remind me very much of Cinderella’s stepsisters, lovely, vain, and regally dressed but not quite the stars of the show. My sincere apologies to the blooms! The wisteria is a proper spring flower with a heavenly perfume but it rambles everywhere in this village, on every windowsill and gate, enough to make it quite common.
If I thought I accomplished something on the ride to Sancerre, then I need to think again because, just then, I find myself in the apartment alone with Marianne who starts explaining to me where everything is, how the microwave works, how the washing machine works, about the program at the school, and the other students; who arrived and who hasn’t, all in rapid French and my head begins to swim like helpless flotsam. I turn to my inner translator, who looks awfully like Joey from Friends, and I find him chuckling in derision. With a little shake of the head, he puts up a sign that says: “are you kidding me? We’re closed!”
I shake my own head at Marianne as she marches onward in an imminent diarrhea of French. I clumsily tell her that I’m too tired to translate! She laughs and keeps going with her speech and I realize they’re trained not to give in at this school. So I nod along until she’s done.
Then I drop into bed, looking forward to my dreams, which will be in a language I can understand, at least!
I had my first French lesson today. The nervousness of sounding like a dithering fool with no ability to speak coherently is mounting. It is accompanied by the frustration of knowing you’re an eloquent person, sometimes poetic, just in another language. It takes me a while to calm down that part of me that finds it ridiculous that I cannot do something as simple as recount what I did yesterday. You’re not allowed to speak in English. You really aren’t.
Most of the students are Americans and most of them are much older than me. They seem very much to me like folks who have taken some time off from life and from being part of the busy honeycomb that is America to experience the pleasure of pretending to be other people. And what about me? Am I pretending to be someone else too? Well I’ve always pictured myself in France as the girl who traipses all over the countryside on a bicycle wearing a straw hat and a violet sundress. A girl who eats croissants everyday until she turns into a pound of butter. I must admit, I do need the curves!
The significance of this image for me is that the person in it is much more in touch with her femininity. Mine was buried long ago in the land of Saudi Arabia. I have succeeded at resurrecting it many times but it always finds a way back into the grave. In Saudi Arabia, they put a memory mattress in your femininity’s grave so that it’s comfortable there.
My private tutor, Laura, is a round dimply young woman with an exuberant sense of humor that is meant to put you at ease. We jump right into l’indicatif and le subjonctif. If you’re at all familiar with French grammar, this is where you start to hit the rocks. There are modes of speaking in French that have not much to do with the time of the verb’s occurrence – past, present, or future – but with the situation. According to my tutor, there is a tense for the mind and a tense for the heart. There is a tense for when you’re expressing a desire, a fear, or a wish – the heart – and a tense for when you’re expressing an observation, a belief, or a thought – the mind. There is a tense for when you’re being polite or when you’re offering advice. And there’s an entire form of the past tense that is used only in literature. My tutor reassures me that it’s a useless tense to learn. Ya think?! Despite all of that, and despite my roiling nervousness, I do just fine. My tutor says things like “The French language is crazy!” or “We can’t explain it! It’s a mystery! That’s the way the language is!”
Just the way our English teachers joked with us when were children in elementary school. And we thought it was funny.
Now speaking to real French people in the real world is a different thing. I constantly feel that I have accidentally hit the fast forward button with my elbow whenever they speak. I often miss what they are saying to me although my basic structure is all there. Every time, I practice a sentence in my head and muster the courage to say it to anyone who will listen they will respond with something that hits me in the face making me go wha--wha--whaaat?. You can predict the response when you are in a classroom but real people? They are wild animals and there is no telling what they will do – or say.
For the first few days, I try out the things I’m learning and feel like I can safely get by. Generally, I reward myself with a delicacy such as ice cream or a piece of pastry so it’s worth the while, you see, to put yourself in the excruciating experience of communicating simple needs in a new language. Eventually, the French get the better of me and I find myself curling up in a reclusive cave and sticking with simple phrases like “Je voudrais…” or “L’addition s’il vous plait”. Soon even these phrases begin to wither. They put their hands on their little waists and say “isn’t it about time you hired some other sentences?”
I am sitting here in the town square weeping over a cappuccino. Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love and my current phantom companion in this little journey of mine was describing in her book a moment when she had to finally let go of a man she loved.
Then I weep even more because I am in the terrain of carbacious food, heartbroken and medically forbidden to let loose with all the traditionally delicious things. I want to nurse my heartbreak with ice cream. Isn’t this what people do? Not to mention that this is European ice cream with a gold star. If you have no idea what that means then I suggest you beget yourself to some Austrian hotel in the countryside and ask them for a berry ice cream or to an Italian Gelateria and try pretty much everything they have.
So I send the demons of diabetes to the seventh circle of hell and tell them to go hang themselves there. Then I order a scoop of chocolate, a scoop of raspberry and lots of chocolate sauce on top, which, I affirm, is only thing that ever competes with my grandmother’s chocolate sauce recipe. I also ordered a pain au chocolate and some bread and butter. I feast to the end of pleasure just where it meets gluttony.
Before I arrived in France, I had a list of intentions, things I wanted to achieve and states of mind I wanted to adopt. But when I slurp my last spoonful of ice cream, having raised my blood sugar to what was probably an obscene level, I realize that I have only three intentions:
1) To learn as much French as I can
2) To find pleasure in nature and in food
3) To be open to experiences
That makes things much simpler and tidier. My mind whines that I need to relearn how to be flirtatious, to retrieve my lost femininity, that I need to write a masterpiece during this trip, that I need to arrange and organize many things, that I need to concentrate on my healing and physical well-being, that I need to listen to Deepak Chopra every morning, that I need to…it’s an endless list. That I need to find enlightenment, my mind adds as an afterthought. I nod to it calmly and say “Anything else?”
It continues with the list. But I ignore and write the three intentions down, feeling very much relieved.
I just realized that the crowning glory for me would be not only to speak fluently in French to all Francophiles but also to speak it to one particular Francophile. Madame Sonya, the woman who cuts my hair in Jeddah.
This woman has a cool French elegance and a chignon that rises from the back of her head like a well-groomed split peach. They intimidate me, both the elegance and the chignon. Her glasses that toujours perch just on the tip of her nose indicate that a woman like her has no time to look beneath her. The French that she speaks – at least to me – carries generations of light hauteur that makes you sizzle with jealousy.
Madame Sonya commands the place. She gets paid the most. She gets to be pissed off when the salon’s underpaid minions don’t sweep the piles of hair beneath the chair before she steps overs them. It’s a big salon and it’s quite posh. If it were a mansion, Madame Sonya would have had the biggest wing and the owners of the mansion would have been content to live in the side kitchen, crowded on mattresses on the dingy floor. All because she was French – a rare imported item - and she has magical hands that could turn your hair into the newest coolest most updated version of you in minutes.
Madame Sonya gave me my first pixie cut. A girl never forgets her first pixie cut because it is either a national disaster or a sensational success. It was the latter for me, thankfully. For that, I owe her 15 minutes of fluid and correct French the next time I plop onto her sterilized chair.
Do I like being with you alone, Maram? Do I like being with you when you’re sad? When you’re lonely? When you’re cranky? When you don’t know what to do with yourself?
So let’s talk about nature and wine.
There is so much nature here in the Sancerrois area that it really doesn’t seem to know where to put the surplus. There’s nature growing on the barks of trees, on walls, in cracks, between forests, there is an abundance of nature, you could sink into it and be buried and find yourself in a verdant afterlife. There’s nature rolling up the hills and down the valleys. There’s nature out your window and nature in the air. You can smell it with every deep breath you take and it fills your lungs with a perfume that no perfumer will ever trap in a vial.
I am having some romps in nature and a few misadventures. I venture one day down the hill all the way into the Loire valley. There’s something about the Loire valley. No matter how far you think you’re going, no matter what “new turns” you think you’re taking, you always end up in the same place. It’s really hard to get lost and I so want to! There is too much world out there and it is a shame to always find oneself in the same place!
I’m in love with nature and nature is in love with me. That’s why it scratches and bites and stings and sends bugs up my leg. I get into various scrapes, tumbling down that hill between plant species that I am not familiar with. To show me how much it loves me, nature introduces me to one specific plant as a welcome gesture.
After a nice picnic of mackerel, avocado and asparagus salad, I walked into a field. Ever the romantic, I decide to take off my shoes to step over a cold stream and continue barefoot in God’s handmade painting. The stream is guarded by a tall bunch of weeds. I step into them and immediately feel a thousand little fire-whips burning the tender skin of my feet. I cry out and limp over to the safe side. I plop on the ground and pour cold water on my feet, where I have almost lost feeling. Then, feeling comes back in a monstrous multitude. It’s as though I have burned both feet. The unfortunate thing is that, in the next instant, I have hypoglycemia and I need to hurry back across the countryside and climb back up the hill, very likely angering my poor feet with immediate stress and pressure. I sit there seething for a bit because this plant has ruined my perfect picnic montage.
At Sancerre, I stumble into the pharmacy and stumble even more over my French. I ask the nice lady if the plant “qui m’attaqué” was dangerous. It’s ridiculous really but that was the French that came to me at the moment. There was no way for me to explain to her what happened but to tell her there was a plant that attacked me! I show her a picture of the plant on my iphone. L’ortie, as I learn it was called in French, is not dangerous. Attaquer may not be the right verb to use here. She says bruler, which means to burn, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. I had to get attacked by a plant to make the connection between bruler, and Crème brûlée, which, if I were to translate directly, means "burnt creme".
Nettle, it was called in English as I learn even later than that. Oh Nettle! Ok. I read about nettle so many time in my accumulation of novels. Nettle: nature’s welcome mat.
The pharmacist gives me a cream to slather all over my feet and tells me not to walk for 24 hours. I take the cream and throw the second half of her advice out the window. It is too beautiful out to stay inside my onion-smelling apartment.
As for the wine…
Today is my second visit to a vineyard. While I do not have a single sip, have never had a sip in my life, I discover something cool about myself.
“Vouz avez le nez!”
That’s what the 19-year-old French girl says to me.
It is clear to me that she has worked the land as she has a maturity about her that is larger than her body. I can see the soul of a lovely ripe old woman looking at me through warm brown eyes that are set in a fine face.
They don’t make teens this way anymore, I think to myself. It reminds me of how my 17-year-old sister is like a dancing noodle, if you can imagine that. A gorgeous giggly hip-hop dancing noodle, all curves, carelessly believing it fits into the boxes and corners of hip-hop. Anyway, I digress.
Usually, I am bothered by the smell of wine. When you’re far away from the glass, all you smell is the rot, which is unpleasant. But I learn that once you let your guard down, pick up the glass, stick your nose in it, it becomes a completely different experience.
I finally understand what they mean by “the bouquet”. It's a valuable experience for my senses, which usually resent me when I leave them dormant. They arrive at the Disneyland of senses as I'm offered the first glass.
A glass of wine is a little festival on its own. The layers upon layers of fragrances, acidity, alcohol, darkness, lightness, body and personality just tumble over one another right underneath your nostrils, like they’re living beings; nymphs in a rhapsody, or strange little children crying for your attention in a soundless pandemonium. Floral. Fruity. Woody. Light. Crisp. Something comes up from the upper left side of the smelling field and hits me like a punch that I can only describe as an intense and round nuttiness. Turns out it was truffle. I can see lyrical illustrations of forests, idyllic little meadows lost in the curves of the glass, with every hungry sniff. I love this.
I'm also bored with our guide’s chattering about the wine.
And the food!
I’m not even going to describe the pastries here, all right? I am simply going to devour the simple luscious things in the farmer’s market down at St. Sature. Heirloom tomatoes speckled with a palette of yellows reds and greens, salt-and-peppered mackerel, asparagus so crisp you can hear the bite. And the cheese!
French cottage cheese sits on top of your spoon like cloud jelly but its nothing like any cottage cheese you’ve ever had. Nothing like American cottage cheese. This is both lumpy and creamy and sour and sweet and it goes down your belly like something you really shouldn’t be having but is so good and light it disappears. There’s a fromage des fruits…or something like that. It has the same softness and flavor of Swiss Ementale but fruity enough to carry it over to the Parmesan territory. You can taste apples and a hint of prunes underneath the cheese.
I made an omelette aux aubergines, salads with various combinations of the meager but flavorful ingredients in my little fridge. Bread and honey and yogurt.
It’s funny the scramble for food on those days of the week when the tiny little grocery store in Sancerre closes, which is often. I was frantic my first night here because I was told the grocery store, and pretty much everything else, closes on Sunday. I had to be well-stocked in my little apartment all by myself in the middle of the nowhere on top of some French hill!
My second week starts.
I am clenched in a pile of disappointment. I was just told that Laura won’t be able to make it all week. She was my safety net. Who knows if she will be my tutor next week? I’ve been handed over to Gwendoline, who is as stout as the G in her name. Her eyes are big and blue, giving her a constant look of severity or of constant surprise depending on what she does with the rest of her face.
She’s stricter and firmer in her tutoring. She hovers between rebuking and friendly sarcasm. Her mode of speaking is more musical than Laura’s. Her vowels are wide and long and her nasal sounds are big and pronounced.
Jenny is here too. She’s my classmate. I don’t even know why she’s here. Her French, while it’s slathered with American sounds, is almost perfect. I am so jealous. Maybe she’s here to humble me. But I think, where French is concerned, I am humbled already to a hash brown.
Ok. I admit I got a little competitive and it turned out that, while she really did have the fluidity in speaking long sentences and paragraphs, there were things that I knew in grammar that she didn’t and I could see her getting a little harried by the end of the lesson. Still, I leave the class feeling dejected because of all the self-consciousness I had to endure with Gwendoline as my tutor and Jenny facing me.
My slightly souring mood does not get any better afterwards. I go to sleep at night and have tortured dreams.
Do you ever really lose love? Where does it go once the story ends? I just want to know where it goes, what container carries it and where it gets shipped. Life slowed down for me just now, perhaps to answer. I saw the moment stretch into multitudes and lives before. Maybe the love goes to past and future lives to kindle a fire or be a cool breeze on someone’s cheek. But it has to go somewhere like something unfolding and unfurling until it becomes a moving being of free will to go where it is needed. With this thought in mind, I donate my love to those who are bereft, to special moments that need extra sparkle, to the rush that excites a couple’s first kiss.
I really am jealous of Jenny. Today was my last class with her, before she leaves for another part of France with her husband and children.
It was not jealousy that got the better of me today, however, it was a frustration at not being able to string words and sentences together. Language usually flows to me like water or air but this confounded language is now flowing to me like a mudslide that is intermittently blocked by boulders.
It’s becoming difficult for me to enjoy the sounds of French now because whenever I start to speak my own hesitation or parched vocabulary instantly becomes an adversary and a sledgehammer gives me blow after blow for not being able to say this sentence correctly or not being able to find that word fast enough. Then there’s the point when I can’t take it anymore and I want all the French people to just shut up! I have a little child inside me that’s sitting in the dunce corner, unable to participate.
At a soiree this evening, we all cook with our tutors and speak French over a meal. There is one luminous moment as I cut the smoked salmon into bits – murdering it, in fact – when I suddenly feel grateful for the French that I do know. It startles me, this burst of gratitude. Enough to vanish in the next second, after which I spend the rest of the evening feeling so impaired that I am quiet most of the time. I am sitting in my chair very aware of all the avenues in the little French town inside my brain that are blocked. I have this horrible feeling that came like a wave that I will never be fluent enough in French no matter how hard I try to drill it in.
Later, I stand in the kitchen, helping Gwendoline with the dish washing, with a lump in my throat that I wanted to leave so I wouldn’t cry in front of these people. I tell her how frustrated I am. She wasn’t too sympathetic.
“Il faut pratiquer, pratiquer, pratiquer!”
I know! I know! I know! I would feel better about practicing if I were to live here. But I’m going back to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia where there are likely no French people to talk to.
I tell myself that I can understand most of what I hear at the school without having to think about it much. But it hurts me that I can’t just open my mouth and speak all that rushes inside in a moment.
So I go home when the last dish is washed and I rest. I’m planning a trip to Paris.
I’ve been hard on my subconscious. It made a truly heartwarming attempt to stand up for itself against my bullying. Learn! Learn! Learn!
The poor thing had been taking it all quietly, probably tearful and confused and then had gone to its room. It probably sat there on its bed for a long time staring into space in shame for failing me, until, a luminous moment arrived and it got up to paint me a dream.
I dream that Gwendoline and I are practicing together. She plays the hotel receptionist and I play the guest in a real hotel. Just to show me how well it was actually learning, the little imp, my subconscious kindly provides me with English subtitles!
“Madame vous voudriez une chamber…”
“Oui, je voudrais une chamber! Merci à vous!”
The conversation is more extensive than that but I don’t remember half of it when I wake up but I do note that I used some complicated grammar while I was asleep.
I open my eyes in the morning and smile. I apologize to my subconscious.
I feel I’ve been asking too much of it lately. My mind is running alongside my train of expectations. Speak French! Make money! Make decisions! Decide if you want to direct another film! All before the end of next week.
My mom told me today that I’m a perfectionist. I wonder if my perfectionism is interfering with my spirituality too.
I sit down every night on the hard wooden floor and face the window that looks down at the wisteria and I ask the Higher Power for guidance, for a path to be revealed to me that will lead me to true enlightenment, peace everlasting, and love overflowing,
It scares me a little to be alone in the middle of the countryside. You see people walking alone in the countryside in films and you never imagine that they might be anxious about being alone.
I am in the middle of nowhere with nothing but sky for cover. As a woman who was brought up in an Arab country, there is an overload of protectiveness that was administered to me regularly. Women alone anywhere was never a good idea.
I am sitting right now in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen in my life. I had a misadventure with the bike I rented. It didn’t take me long to decide that riding a bike on bumpy country terrain is no fun at all. They make it look fun in the movies but really it’s not. So I was walking the bike instead down a deserted pathway alongside the cow pasture. It’s not fun to walk a bike down a manure, strewn dirt road either. Just when I thought my path was futile, I turned to my right and saw an opening in the hedge and there it was, an eye-popping field of colza flowers.
The small flowers dot the field eternally, creating yellow foam or cream on the surface that you just want to gather. The yellow makes you want to drink it. It makes you want to paint with it. It makes you want to be yellow. And then when the sun splits the clouds and falls on the edge of the field, that strip of wildflowers there glows golden like they're the sun’s most cherished pupils.
But even as I sit here buried in colza, there is a sore gnawing in my gut that is saying “Do you want to get raped?”
And that, my dears, is my sad contribution to this field. There is a sense of urgency there in my stomach, even though I know theoretically that the area is safe. I cannot un-construct a solid pillar from my upbringing – obsessing over fear and safety instead of savoring the extraordinary and the truly enjoyable. But I can sit here and be with this fear. I look up constantly to see if anyone is approaching. My muscles tingle, ready to jump. Still, I stay. And breathe a lot of yellow.
Then I decide to leave because my subdued fear could be killing the poor flowers!
I’m on the train to Paris. I’m spending the weekend at an AirBnb apartment.
It’s been a cold morning. I waited at the bus station at Sancerre, pissed off because the bus was late. It’s probably always late like this with no regard for people’s train schedules. Or maybe they decided no one needed a bus this early in the morning today anyway. I huffed and puffed and paced, cancelling the Paris trip in my mind already. Until, in my peeved pacing, I found myself facing the bus schedule. It turns out that I was half an hour early. Typical.
The morning was brutal up on the hill. The sky was still a bit dark and there was fog below in the valley. It was an awesome scene like the first verse in a holy book, or the beginning of the world. Like Aslan’s song. "(All) praise is (only) Allah's, the Lord of the worlds.". In the beginning, God created the Earth...
The bus retained as much of the cold as it possibly could, mistaking it for a passenger to be taken along. I watched the sunrise over the fields. There’s something about the sunrise that makes my flesh soften and turn into gauzy light. The sunlight is never more divine than in the morning. It’s God’s first offering. Maybe it’s the dew rising that creates this effect and it was rising in those fields in long breaths caught between the salmon flesh sky and the grasses.
It’s not any warmer here on the train. And I’m not done beating myself up for not bringing my UGGS from Riyadh!
Alors! I’m glad to finally be somewhere where the restaurants open during lunchtime and actually serve you lunch (are you listening Sancerre?).
I’m at Les Deux Magots at Saint Germain des Prés. Don’t expect to be coddled in Paris. Respected as a human being? Yes. Treated with a fair amount of politeness? Yes. But coddled? No. Americans coddle and grin and gush. The French don’t.
The waiter hurriedly takes your order because of course you’re here to eat and the food is good – bien sur! What’s new about that?
I am sitting on an island right now, which is my little table at the restaurant, and I’m like a bridge between three languages all at once. On my right, two tables are having a conversation in French from which I pick up short trains of meaning that travel singularly and in pairs. On my left, there’s a group of chic Americans speaking in English. Then, there’s the Lebanese couple by the window, all sculpted nose and rosy budding lips, black leather jacket, and slithering boots, speaking in loud Lebanese Arabic. I can understand all three languages at once. This moment is paramount.
So I celebrate with a croissant. I will halt this entire journal – I would halt the entire world – just to describe to you this croissant from the far regions of heaven. It’s a thick spiral-shaped confection. Golden brown perfection. I ask the lady at the patisserie about it. In rapid French she mentions three things: Butter, cream, and sugar. So I guess it was drenched in all three before it was baked so that it came out of the oven caramelized, sated with cream, and positively spoiled with oozing butter.
I stopped in the middle of the sidewalk when I took my first bite. Really, I did. This croissant might have well been dangling off of the tree of knowledge. Adam and Eve just didn’t see it. I am asking God for forgiveness right now.
I sit for a while with a bunch of old Tunisian Jews who immigrated here years ago and barely speak Arabic anymore. They started reforming my life from the moment I tell them I am from Saudi Arabia. A beautiful woman from Saudi Arabia who writes and makes films, who lives in a country where women are treated like a lower caste and who is now in Paris practicing her French with us? What are we going to do with her? What to do indeed?! She must marry a Frenchman! She must move here! She must be free!
“You should stay in Paris,” one of them says. “We treat women like queens here!”
What these poor old guys don’t know is that not every woman is just waiting around to be treated like a queen. Some of us are queens regardless of anything or anyone wherever we go! Now to say that in French!
Then there is Notre Dame, the gardening kiosks by the Seine and … Shakespeare & Company. Apparently, it’s a very famous bookshop where people stand in line to get in because the place is cozy and cannot accommodate so many trampling feet. It had a Tudor feel on the inside. There are books jammed into every bookshelf, ledge and crevice. It’s the topsiest-turviest bookstore I’ve ever been in. It’s like visiting the dim inside of a book’s mouth only to find even more books inside. You could not move in there without bumping into someone.
So In this popular bookstore, I decide not to peruse. It’s enough for me to know that I am in the company of a thousand books so I go upstairs to the library. I find the comfiest armchair and go to sleep.
There is a gorgeous white cat in the library, sleeping on the sofa. She and I are the only two sleeping creatures. We both know that books sometimes just need to be felt.
Many people come by to pet the cat. No one pets me but when I wake up after dropping off the cliff of consciousness, I find an elderly gentleman observing me keenly.
“I thought only kids can do that,” he says to me with a North American accent.
Some members of my family often tease me for being able to fall asleep anywhere.
“Well maybe I am a kid.” I tell him.
“Or a cat,” he says, “Meow!”
Is this man meowing at me? I can’t believe he’s meowing at me! It turns out he is a Canadian professor who teaches here in Paris. How charming! We end up having coffee at the little cafe next to the bookstore.
I open up to this man. I don’t know why. There is nothing about him that is particularly warm and cuddly. But he listens, with the occasional satirical joke. I don’t know if he’s a confidant in disguise or if I just want to talk to somebody in a language that is not French.
He’s a relatively short man with the potential of being a respectable ginger but who has somehow gone off course. He says he teaches Rhetoric. His brown suit and yellowish woolen cardigan prove it.
He judges me for giving money to the lost-looking writer sitting in front of the bookstore with a typewriter and a faraway look on his face. The twenty-something offered to write me a short story for what ever I felt like paying him. I was intrigued by the idea. It reminds of the poet that offered the same thing to Jesse and Celine in Before Sunrise.
“You could have given that money to the Indian man who’s selling roses. He probably has children to feed.” The professor says to me and I sense his contempt, not really liking the odor it wafts.
I could have told him that true giving needs to go where it is most sincere because, otherwise, it would be just an idea or an obligation. That was where my sincerity was at the moment. He’s a writer. I’m a writer. We are kin.
“Instead of giving it to a middle class white kid who probably had a good education!” the professor continues.
“How do you know he had a good education?”
A part of me cringes inside because I worry he might be right and that my contribution might have been foolish, privileged and naïve. But I shake it off because my spirit of giving came from a source that is thirsty for new experiences and thirsty for connection with the creative force. I was curious. Simply curious. Then I shake it off even more. I don’t need to justify my actions or where I throw my money to this man.
Our conversation veers off into more pleasant topics and we have a nice time. I say goodbye to him when my coffee is had and his wine is sipped.
I take a walk by the seine, which by then, had teased itself into a most irresistible softness with the afternoon sun watering down through clouds and the sky aching blue.
Lovers are scattered everywhere along the banks. You take one look at the physical proximity between two people - a touch, a caress, a glowing look that darts shyly from one face to the other - and you know they have surpassed friendship.
I sit on the bank with everyone else in the midst of this rare perfection, hoping that someday I will sit here again with a lover of mine.
Back in Sancerre. Jenny is gone. I am back with Laura.
My frustration is still mounting. Is it ok that I don’t want to hear French? Is it ok if I don’t want to struggle with it anymore? I feel I’ve reach a plateau with my spoken French.
I watched Disney’s Pocahontas in French the other night and I understood about 70% of it without subtitles, which should be enough to encourage me but every time I try to speak to someone, it’s like running around with an alarming need for the bathroom but finding myself constipated. It’s tiring me out. I have language headaches more often now. Is it because the language that I’ve learned so far is arranging itself in there? I hope so.
I have one week left, or less. I’m dying for linguistic release. I fantasize about a moment when all the French I know in theory meets the stumbling drunken French that I speak and says “listen, you can’t go around embarrassing the family like this! It’s about time you sobered up!”
Will a miracle of language happen soon before I leave for Riyadh?
Speaking of miracles, I had my heart set on finding one today. So I decide to go out when the afternoon is ripe with nothing but my little messenger bag and my journal in search of one in the vast countryside.
I’m ecstatic that the sky is clear and the sun is out. It’s warm enough for my finicky feet to feel comfortable. I put on my favorite blazer and I set out down the slope behind the public library.
As I walk alongside the wall that’s devoured by moss, an elderly couple stops to speak to me. The conversation is simple. We talk about the field, about the school, about where I come from. Sometimes I feel like people are planted in my path so I can demonstrate to myself the progress that I’m making. I walk away humbly thankful for having gone through the entire conversation without sweating!
Down the slope, and through a golden vineyard. I stop to pay my respects to my favorite haunts.
I choose a different path to see where it leads me. I find a spot at the foot of hill that is like a long horizontal strip of green that is walled by trees. The sun falls there in splatters. It looks like a corridor of some kind, a divide between two wings in a beautiful mansion. I sit down, wondering if this spot is today’s find but I decide to continue onward.
The opening in the trees leads me down another vineyard and it’s quite a walk down. It’s getting warm and I feel a little weak so I sit down and have something sweet. But as I munch on my apple, I look up and find a colza field on my right, nestled between the vineyard and the railroad bridge. The yellow here is multiplied tenfold, it’s larger, yellower, thicker, screaming for me to run through it. And I did.
I ran through the flowers like one chasing a mirage to the yellowest part of the field and I eventually drop on the cushiony ground with the resolution that there will never be a yellower spot than the one I’m standing on.
This is my miracle. A second chance to be a normal human being in a beautiful field who doesn’t think about rape but instead feels the full joy of the moment. A field like this is a gift from Creation and it is my ultimate duty to put aside irrational fears and be a colza flower myself. Imagine if one way we, humans, can appreciate the Earth is to transform into the beautiful thing that enchants us for a moment to pay homage to the beauty, the wholeness. Some would argue that we are the beautiful things that enchant us because we are everything.
A colza flower nods at me as I stare up at it from where I’m lying down. I’ve found my spot. I found my place in the world. I want to be buried here.
I woke up in a dark mood today, like an old fly that is too tired to struggle against a spider’s web. It’s because I’m leaving France in a couple of days.
I’m always fearful when it’s time to go back to Riyadh, in case I lost all the spiritual, personal or professional progress I’ve made. Riyadh to me, feels like a man-trap or a black hole. I pray that I will find a way out of there soon! But for now, moments count and I intend to embody every single one until it’s time to go.
Did my moment arrive with the French language? Not exactly. There was no epiphany. Nothing clicking in my brain. No sudden revelations. Just the quiet observation one day as I strolled with Laura through town and rode downhill with her in her car that I was speaking with ease, without even thinking too much about it. It’s like slipping your foot into silk stockings and realizing a moment later that you have them on. We were having extensive conversations about a myriad of things, not all of them simple. Albeit she was speaking at a slower pace with me and enunciating her words, I still feel, that without my noticing, I had crossed the borders of language somehow.
I am thankful for every crumb of French I know today. The sad thing about this experience is that you don’t really start to know a place until you’re about to leave. While I was here, I made friends with a dog named Lucien and a cat that I named Tabac and that, dear readers, is the mark of knowing a place. I have also found the best croissant in Sancerre!
The train carries me back to Paris, this time not to indulge but to say goodbye. I truly am sad that I’m leaving. I’ve found something precious here, not just a new language but a new way of being. I guess that’s what we all search for when we travel. Except that this is a way of being, I could get used to.
It’s about to start: The conductor’s speech! The ping comes on and I hear his muffled scratchy voice as the train begins to move. I’m not afraid anymore because I can now understand not all of his speech but enough of it to say that the last challenge has been won.