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.