Dancing in the Rain, in France

Villeseque des Corbieres, France 547An unexpected project is taking an unexpectedly longer time to wrap up than I could have imagined. Instead of flying out to Turkey, I delay it one week (scramble, scramble to re-arrange things). But the upside, is the extension gives me the weekend, in one place, to work. And a few days to overlap with Martina’s stay.

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Nervous I’ll witness another friend-visit-disappointment, I send her all kinds of warnings: I work a lot, at weird hours, I can’t be social, I’ll ignore you, you might start to hate me because I have to do this work, no matter what. I won’t be any fun.

Of course she laughs, she understands, she has work to do as well, and she’s got a pile of books and sunshine to catch up on. She tells me that she wants to make me coffee in the morning and dinner at night, and will otherwise leave me be.

It is the sweetest thing, ever.

S634he arrives and we spend relaxing south-of-France style days doing our own thing while the sun is out. When the guilt of what I haven’t done or seen or accomplished (my French lessons stalled by the second week) starts to creep in as my trip winds down, Martina is amazing at reminding me to think of all that I was able to do, while here. Of course there weren’t 30 days of tourist-ing or sight-seeing, but I lived in south France, in a tiny village, I walked up through the mountains, beautiful castles, Bastille Day in Villefranche, the Tour with my friends in the Pyrenees…and in true Martina Gruppo form, this trip is not even close to being “over”, even if only 48 hours remain.

My favorite hours are those we share, talking, laughing, trading ideas and thoughts, over wine and panzanella (sp?), the amazing Italian concoction that transforms old baguettes (and with my carb appetite, I supply Martina with a few!) with the most delicious ingredients.

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And then her friend Rachael arrives, a lovely mixture of gold-blond hair and laughter. And bacon! To my utter, jaw-dropping surprise, Martina sends a message to Rachael to smuggle in some REAL bacon from the UK as a gift for my new Turkish landlord, Namik (who is craving real bacon). And, when I’d thought all hope was lost, there it is. One beautiful package of frozen bacon (which I’ll take to Paris, freeze in hotel’s shared freezer, then take to Orly airport, fly to Turkey…present to Namik and get profuse thanks and a hug. All because of bacon, yes, bacon. And Rachael, xo!)

We get along famously — though it’s hard not to when Martina takes us to the tiniest hole-in-the-wall restaurant just 15 minutes down the road in Villeneuve les Corbieres. The decor is quaint, the patrons are simple. The food is. Out. Of. This. World. Amazing.

Rachael, Martina and I laugh our way through five courses of amazing-ness. Duck with a cherry sauce, fish with three tapenades…every bite is out of this world. But the creme brulee.

Warm and perfect. They split the last dish into three, one little bowl for each of us to “oohhh” and “ahhh” over. And we do.

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It’s late in the night when we return home. Music goes up, wine bottles come out, and my stay in France ends with a dance party. It’s hilarious and lovely and quite perfect. I try not to think about leaving tomorrow. Just focus on the here and now and enjoy every last second.

It starts to rain, and then pour. The hot, humid summer days are washed away in a torrent of water and lightening. We watch from the window. And then we’re standing at the front door, in our south of France best dresses after an amazing dinner, setting down glasses of red wine and laughing…

Who hasn’t wanted to run, barefoot, through the warm summer rain in south of France, with their girlfriends?

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So we run. Together.

The flood of rain, gushing down the cobbled road, splashes up with each step.

We run to the first lightpost… and then the next!

Laughing and screaming, as rain pours.

We start to turn back to the safety of the house…but then stop. And actually just stand in the rain.

Rain drips from my saturated hair. White skirt and gray shirt stick to my body. And the rain pours down.

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All I can think or say, It’s like a movie, this is like a movie. This is too amazing….not just the rain, but this, south of France, dinner, Martina and Rachael, the chance to be here, the ups and downs it took to make this trip at all.

I run inside and grab my camera. Martina and Rachael swirl each other around, at midnight, in the middle of Rue de Gleon in Villeseque des Corbiers, in the rain.

Travail ou Vacances (Work or Vacation…)

france_rooftop meetingJean-Luc formally invites me to the fourth of July celebration with his family and French friends. (They also celebrate Thanksgiving too, he tells, with a grin).

I accept.

881Endless warm days pass and I work, as much as my aching back and twitching eye will stand. I work all weekend. I live on baguettes. I barely see more than the evening sunset’s worth of France. (But I post ridiculously positive facebook updates the very second I am sitting at sunset with laptop open, enjoying what appears to be a leisurely glass of wine…who really needs–or wants– to know how many hours I billed, how many pleasant distractions I ignored to be able to drink that first sip of wine.)

The morning before I hang my head and tell Jean-Luc I regretfully must decline. I can hardly look him in the eye. But it is the weekend? It is your celebration? America is not even awake –they will not know you are away for a few hours…

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I know. But I have this deadline – if I don’t make it, it throws off the entire project. I rub my blood-shot eyes (it’d been a late Saturday night of work) and hang my head.  I try to explain my situation (a conversation I’ve had in many languages this last year). I’m not on vacation, I have bills and a home to pay for back in America. I have to work. And I must work a lot, sometimes, to make my boss happy so that I can travel, visit France, be here. But that means sometimes I have to give up things I’d prefer to do, to do what I must…For half an hour he scratches his head to try to come up with a solution to my “problem” but eventually we both agree that I am a “work-a-holic”. How to explain to a man who visits the beach with his family almost daily, who has grown up in a culture that celebrates vacation—how do I explain that me working around the clock in France, is considered “very fortunate” amongst my peers back home…I have five months of travel, I have no intent of letting a deadline slide because I’m not sitting in the fluorescent-lights of a cubicle, surrounded by glass and other work-a-holics.

No, I can be a work-a-holic in the vineyards of France, you just watch me…

I close the door, and Jean-Luc leaves. I head back upstairs to my simple office, to work the 4th away. This is a better life, right..It just requires some sacrifices sometimes. All choices do. But to be here, it’s better…right?

I say this to no one.

I would never have even made it to France but for this opportunity. So what if I have to work, inconvenient hours. It’s for the greater good. But the look on Jean-Luc’s face won’t leave me.

Je ne Sais Quoi

When I’m not working. I’m online. A lot. So I’m thankful a few days of quiet working later when there’s a knock at the door. Cameron, Ellen’s son on his bike, invites me over for drinks with Ellen.

D’Accord!

He looks at me funny.

We walk through the street of Villeseque and I rattle off 1 – 20. I ask for more numbers. So I get them. A whole pile of confusing, new, French that are supposed to be 60, 70, 80, 90…Laughing, in the sunshine that flits between the narrow crack of sky between ancient buildings. It feels funny to be alive. Cameron gives me my next numbers, I repeat, as we walk.

I meet Ellen’s friend Peter, white-haired documentary and film producer from the UK but in Villeseque for a few days teaching movie-making to Ellen’s students. (Both the students and Peter love this time.) It’s another easy, lovely night at Ellen’s. More travel stories and adventures from someone who has been to places I’ve only dreamed of, more glasses of wine, more of that feeling that I’m doing the right thing by being here (even if it is raising questions in my head that I’m a little afraid to answer) in the beautiful remoteness of a quiet, small town in south of France.

Ellen has a dinner date, with her amazing French boyfriend, so we set out to depart. But the walk back home leads to more questions than I can answer  in the 5 minute stroll. We set up with a bottle of wine, on the rooftop of Peter’s borrowed apartment.  The sun slowly sinks into the wild hills, all shades of gold, red, purple and blue as the birds come out—hundreds of talented black swifts, chasing, calling and diving into the southern sky. Peter points out their wing structure, which WWII planes mimicked for their flexibility and grace.

1338We stay up late, talking about the things people always talk about when drinking wine late: life, people, struggle, love, adventure.

Peter’s seen much more than I have, on all accounts. But is transfixed on my being here, in Villeseque. He asks the question I’m growing more and more familiar with as the weeks stretch along: What, in the world, are you running from Joya Iverson?

I take a sip of wine. Smile. I like to think I’m running towards. And it’s a big difference. …I spent a year in Seattle forcing myself to stare what I had left, after life sorta flipped upside down one day (and again, and again), forcing myself not to “run”. But it only lasted a few months. How long do you stay, in one place, before you grow stagnant? I am running towards a new life. I hope. But I honestly don’t know…if this is running away, then fine. I’d rather my life be full of the adventure – than stuck and stagnant. I would rather do this, here, now.

You?

It is the same.

We talk about the lives and history of France. The old walls that have seen our lifetimes, multiplied. Full dreams and hopes  and heartbreaks of generations. He tells me to visit the churches of France. I am not religious or anything, but it is not about that. It is about the human life that has been conceived and expired, within those walls. The collective prayers of generations. He tells me where to go, without hesitation he offers me his house for my use. It’s further north, in Villefranche de Rouergue through bucolic fields and softer climes. If nothing more you should just see it, this other side of France. Just to know.

He shows me iPhone photos of the house he bought (the nearly-destroyed ruins it started as and the amazing chateaux it’s become), he tells me of the house behind his that he’s bought and remodeling now.

But conversation goes back, uncomfortably, to me. Peter is convinced that there is something else. There is something about me, that is different. And will not let it go. Do you know what I’m talking about? He asks. Is it just me  or do people tell you this.

I take a sip of wine. Smile. Shrug tired shoulders. I don’t know.

Ah ha! Oh, they do! Of course you won’t tell, but they do!

I don’t know. [memory flips through pages of the funny things people have said to me in the last couple years…] People see what they want to see…feel…believe.

1246So you agree?

I don’t. It’s just that..hmmm, I think it’s more a reflection about the people who say these things.  I don’t know. But it’s not me. I’m not doing anything.  It’s them.…Look, my life has been amazing to me, but only because it has crumbled so dramatically, complete upheaval that has brought me to my knees time and again. But it’s opened me up to so much more, so much that is better than what was, as painful and difficult as it was. I try not to hide from it. I try to wear my heart on my sleeve and see what happens.  What someone sees in me is more about where they’re at in their life…what they are able to appreciate. It’s not about what I am or what I inspire….there is nothing worse than being someone’s inspiration …

Why?

1285Because, inevitably, it’s followed by the moment when you are not.

I will tell you this, Joya Iverson. I actually saw you before I met you, this afternoon, you were walking with Ellen’s boy, Cameron, talking. Before even knowing who you were or talking to you or anything, I knew you were something different. And the minute I saw you, I knew I would meet you. I knew that you are someone special, there is a light, and sincerity around you.  I don’t care what you say. I know I am not the only one who sees this. I am very pleased to have met you. Really and truly.

A sip of wine. I laugh. Keep going. I’m going to write about this later you know.

You blog? Oh, that’s just rubbish.

Yup!

It’s dark when I leave for home. My head swirling, wine and words, walking strange lonely roads through a quiet town. It’s pleasant and confusing.

Wake up to the ding of a phone. A text message from Leslie: Surf at Agate the fourth of July? You coming?

I laugh, a quiet paddle out in the morning, gliding across water and foamy waves, sounds good, why did I decide not to surf this trip?

Asleep.

Je t’aime Bread Truck Man (I Love You Bread Truck Man!)

634And then the wind is gone. Like a friend who’s gone home after a long stay, it’s strangely quiet. Not good or bad. It just suddenly feels like a different place, completely, as I’ve not known the village without surly gusts of dry France wind. I’ve not known the house without walls creaking and sighing and doors slamming for an invisible, unexpected gust. The streets and vineyards seem empty without the fullness of those powerful gusts.

The summer sun appears and warm weather slowly chases out the chilly nights.  I find a routine and rhythm to my days. Up at 8am. Down spiral metal stairs. Open curtains. Coffee grounds in the French press. Pour in hot water. Grinds swirl, then settle, then sit. Turn on the computer, a first check at email. Then filter the coffee. About the time I pour my first cup, there’s a long, determined honk down the alley. I run downstairs (in various states of pajama, just out of the show, barely awake looks) and swipe three or four coins from the kitchen counter, and out the door, into the sunshine to greet him. The Villeseque des Corbieres bread truck man. Or just “the bread man”, for short.

958Hairy, fat, and friendly.

Patient, encouraging looks (as he speak zero English) and smiled corrections in a gravely French voice, when I stumble through the most basic French.   As we stand in the ancient streets of Villeseque, me holding my baguettes, him holding my change, he listens to me count to 100 on my fingers (nods in eager suspense when I pause over the hard ones: soixante, soixante-dix, quatre-vingts, quatre-vingt-dix, and he rejoices with me when I hit my goal: cent!)

Amazing fresh bread, delivered reliably every morning (except Mondays, sad!).

Un baguette and un croissant become part of my daily routine.  Reliable, encouraging (even when I mess up), giving, and never needing more than a smile (and a few Euros I’m more happy to give): the breadman quickly becomes the man of my life (Je t’aime Bread Truck Man).

On a good day I take an oven-fresh, golden, flaky croissant and a jar of framboise jam, fresh-pressed coffee to the rooftop to sit for 10 minutes, in the sun, watch the birds diving through the sky, and just sit.

On bad days, I head straight upstairs to work. Sit a large pot of coffee to one side of my laptop, croissant on the other, as my morning starts.

Hours pass at my little French desk: a slab of wood across two metal sawhorses (which Jean-Luc brought over my first day), and a white plastic folding chair, surrounded by textured white walls. It’s quiet. Peaceful. I get a lot done….a lot done. Which is good: work is moving along quickly. An unexpected project moves me at such a pace, often I forget what time it is. I frequently miss the store hours, or what day it is, lost in work. And often, a last minute dinner at 11pm consists of a few slices of baguette and cheese.

When my back starts hurting or my eyes twitch (the side effects of working abroad, from a tiny computer screen) I get up, take my dictionary and head outside.

I walk up and down the little, quiet streets. I explore all the dusty gravel roads, cicadas electric chirping, past tiny farms and trailers, yelping dogs and doves, and worn farmers.

sunset_franceI practice over and over my new words. I teach myself to count to 10, then 20, then 30, counting my steps through the vineyards up hills and across town. I spend an entire afternoon tagging every passerby with “he goes” “she goes” “we go” trying to commit the French to memory in my impromptu French quiz…

It’s slow progress. I don’t have more than an hour or two of spare time, at a time.

There’s always something that needs to be done. The downside of sandwiching travel where each location is enough to be its own trip. (There is little time to relax)

There is really always something: getting there, the dates, the flight, the meetings, the email, the payment, the blog, the updates on top of the usual stuff (the work, the friends, the email)….but when I find myself complaining, in the quiet south of France afternoon, I glance at the old walls or rugged mountains and remember there is a price to everything.

Donc… (So…)

So….the next morning Ellen picks me up. We drop Cameron off at school in neighboring Narbonne, 30 minutes away, then walk through the massive farmer’s market. Mounds of fresh vegetables, meat, cheese. It’s amazing. Intoxicating.

Ellen chit chats with me and comfortably flips to fluent French. I listen to the music of her order, as the woman behind the counter heaps freshly picked French strawberries, plush heads of lettuce, and red-white striped radishes (you must take them home, soak them all day, dip them in butter and salt–it’s French) into a bag, with a smile.

When she turns to me, my mouth is already formulating words before I can think to stop it. They’re all the wrong words. Spilling out of my mouth, one after the other, as I try to find the right words. But they are no where to be found, Godemid….alstublief…Saya…tidak, tidak, tidak..I mean, no, ja?

If this were Spanish: Quisiera fraises..

Where am I? I’m in France. And I know how to say please, I know how to say how are you, I know how to (very politely) ask someone to pass the butter. But order strawberries! Or order anything? I don’t know a single word for a single vegetable staring at me right now. Good for them. Bad for me. I’m going to starve. Hoya!!

Cheeks burn hot, in front of my new friend. Ellen has to do it all for me. I dumbly hold out the 20 Euro (which I know will be more than enough, since I can’t understand the actual number of the cost of my purchase), not angry just disappointed with myself. What have I been doing the last two days. The French lessons start, now.

075Over cafe au lait (which Ellen orders as I listen intently) I start scribbling down her words on the back of a gum wrapper. It’s the only way I really learn (say, write, repeat…). And Ellen gives me practical words (se va? la mem) and fun ones too (Donc which means “so…” and used profusely as verbal filler in French conversation — but the sound of “donque” sounds like “donk” and in contrast to the soft, hushed,

flowery prose, it is so harsh, so not-French sounding that I now tune into it and laugh when it pops into conversations…donk! She teaches me “coo-coo”, the baby-talk used endearingly for children and adults…) It’s a great start.

In between my scribbles Ellen be-friends the four year old boy with dark eyes and the most adorable faux-hawk, wandering between tables, as his mother waits tables. When he sits down with a magazine and a family friend, he smiles at us, shyly, from behind his magazine. When a grown-up friend sits down, they talk excitedly. When Ellen asks, they point to the picture, then he smiles and hides.

Ellen translates, the boy thinks I’m the beautiful model in the magazine. It’s silly, inaccurate and adorable! I don’t have the French words to explain the truth…to a four year old. So I just go with what I know: Merci beau coup! over and over, as he grins and laughs and we finish our cafe.

Un Verre du Vin (a Glass of Wine)

I snap my laptop shut at 6:30pm to get ready. After a day of quiet work, it’s time to meet my neighbors. (I clear my throat) I don’t think I’ve said a word all day.

Martina’s already Facebook introduced me to her friend Ellen, who sets up wine with a few others in the town. I’ve been looking forward to it since arriving…until the very moment I begin to dress. How did I manage to escape Seattle without a single item more dressy than jeans, flowery cotton tank top…and flip-flops. (Oh, right, packing for a five month trip fifteen minutes before running out the door…the cute, fancy clothes were the first to go…)

My first night out in my lovely little French town and my favorite footwear is suddenly feeling really in adequate. Actually I’m feeling rude. Under-dressed. What I wouldn’t give for the pair of gold ballet flats right now. But, I’m in the middle of a tiny French town in south of France and there is absolutely nothing I can do.

Warm gusts of wind blow my white scarf in swirls as I walk through empty Villeseque streets, in circles. Ellen’s address in my hand, but where is this road? Why didn’t I find it before this? I’m late…and in flip flops…and in France. It’s not making me laugh. A little flustered this will be my first impression. (I silently hope Martina warned them that I’m standard American-fare…oh, god, what if they’re expecting something brilliant…deep breath, it will be alright…if you meet a bunch of snobby French people, you only have — counting — 28 days left…oh…dear…)

Then I see a dusty-gray hatchback swing around the narrow lane. Jean-Luc!

I say the first broken French words in my head, Je suis problem (I am problem!)

The confused-disappointed look on his face, as I butcher his language in accent and form, is priceless. (But I’m sure my helpless, wind-blown-crazy look isn’t much better!)

I hop in the car, a little relieved that in the town of three roads he actually makes two wrong turns before finding it. But we do and, heart pounding, I’m knocking on Ellen’s door. I hope this will be good.

She opens. Eyes, sparkling, tanned…in flip flops. I laugh. Instantly. I know. This. Is. Going to be good. Because how in the world could being greeted at the front door in matching flip flops, in France, not be a sign that this is exactly where I need to be! And to think, I only made it here on accident… (Note to self: make more accidents. I couldn’t have planned this better.)

Over glasses of rose and amazing cheese and sausage, we trade stories and adventures. Everyone of us travelers. Even Ellen’s children – blond Cameron who’d traveled to Morocco by six and Murphy a fluent French speaker at seven.

It’s a meeting too good for words. I think between us we’ve covered the globe. I can’t believe I’m in a tiny town in the south of France, for the first time in my life, laughing with Richard & Laura (who have made a fabulous life of living full-time in France) over backpacking adventures or Carolyn’s South African life: of power outages and freezers of food melting, so they build a bonfire, break open cases of wine and turn the blackout into a party.

Too quickly time flies by and it’s midnight. I can’t believe how little you can know about some people and feel completely at ease. People worth knowing.

Later that night, laying between crisp white sheets and downy white comforter, my mind goes back to Ellen. Her contagious energy and easy manner and how she had said, sitting beside me what I realized it could very well have been my own words, I’d always been a girl who planned things out. I knew where I was going and how to get there. Now, I’m trying something different. I’m just living. Month by month. I’m not sure what comes next, after this, after France. But I remind myself to figure it out then…and I’ve never been happier!

She hops up to get more wine and my first sip is a silent toast to her happiness.

A tiny black & white cat hops through the window. Cameron and Murphy call back and forth to each other, playing a quiet game, from their separate windows bedrooms. We sit, five people who have never before met, from three different countries, sharing a fourth.

The result of her “lack” of a plan and decision to move her life, kids and love of teaching across oceans to start a new life in a small village. It feels like home. Just two days and it, France, feels like home. France. I never would have thought…

I walk home with Carolyn, talking, between gusts of wind. She tells me more about the village, its contents and characters. She tells me how fantastic it is, what I’m doing right now, being here, seeing the world, being part of life in other places, alone. Her familiar accent of my sister-in-law. There will always be time for someone else.

I am dead tired. But I climb the three flights of stairs to the roof and sit for a long, wind-swept minute. In the orange-glow of a rare light, warms plain stone walls and peeling shutters. Across the street stands a half diminished house from centuries before, and just like Ellen had told me, I now see the row of eight knobby, hooved legs of wild boars, crudely nailed to the blue-green stable door, all in various stages of blackened decay. A rebel pair angled slightly askew, from all the others. It’s weird, creepy–little boar legs swinging in the wind–but it’s south of France. Old, drunk French men shooting guns at wild boars from the sides of streets, nearly grazing cars and drivers, during hunting season, I’m told.

Even south of France, which seemed so “the same” as any other place (yawn!), I’m realizing has it’s. Another gust. It’s quiet, small and remote. Another gust. But it feels amazing to be here.

Petit Voiture (Little Car)

A shuffle of old papers, dust, and a stubborn door.

Jean-Luc apologizes, small French car.

I laugh: Ja! Si…Oui! Small French car! I love it. It’s perfect. Really!

In the small French car, 80’s gray hatchback, we race through the most picturesque countryside. Between outcroppings of red-gold rock are outcroppings of red-gold stone houses with tiled roofs, massive rectangular windows framed in cement and set with shutters of softly peeling paint, aged to a perfect shade of pastel.

Row after row of grapevines, old gnarled stumps tacked with strings of chartreuse leaves that wave with each gust of warm wind. Linear cypress and shadowy fig trees grow in wild clumps along the road for miles. Surrounding it all rise massive, gray-green mountains, rippled with ageless rock, and the red-gold ruins of generations long passed.

In the hour drive to the house, I read all the city names with my best imitation of a French accent (wait for Jean-Luc’s correction) then say them again. Perpignan, Sigean, Carcasonne, Corbieres, Narbonne. I learn the numbers that come after 3, I learn the word for “ocean” which is dangerously close to “mother”. I learn “par du problem”, or “not a problem”, which I practice with animated gestures and emphasis trying to cement the new words to the meaning, to Jean-Luc’s amusement. (I forget it all. I ask Jean-Luc for my new words again. I forget it all again.) I learn of the Romans who passed through this valley ages ago. I learn of the villages of wood, burnt down to halt the bubonic plague I’d read about in history books. I see the only remnants of that struggle – a stone church, slowly sinking back into the ground.

Squiggly roads, a dark tunnel through a wall of rock. Dark clouds storming above us. A quick turn to a row of tall, arching trees with yellow-brown bark and the electric chirp of cicadas.

Villeseque des Corbieres, Jean-Luc waves his hand and looks to me.

Simple, square, Mediterranean houses sit solemnly on a single lane that splits into two at a fountain for “les infantes”. More gold-red stone. Corroded wood beams that suggest lifetimes of service. The lane splits again at the worn, green metal bench. I gasp as we keep left on an even tinier, patchwork road of concrete and potholes. We pass within inches of the houses that mark each site. Then voila!

My south of France house for the next month.

A 31 year old kid at Christmas. I clap my hands as we explore each nook and cranny of the four storied, white-washed, shabby-chic, girl-castle and I start at that moment counting down the moments until I can close the door, my door, and soak in the glossy white tub as it’s then we (or more Jean-Luc) realizes my predicament. The town market is closed for the next day (it’s Sunday and they close Monday), the nearest market is miles away and I’m car-less.

Par du problem, shrugs Jean-Luc. I smile. And we march over to Isabelle’s (his wife who lives across the street, with no less than 5 kittens and 2 kids, for economic reasons, but not for lack of love!) and after a series of rapid French conversations I don’t understand, all three of us are speeding back in the little French car, through the tiny roads to the nearest open super market, 30 miles away in Narbonne. Under fluorescent lights, I load up on essentials.

I smile, say Bonjour, smile, hand over the Euros, smile, say Merci.

Accent obvious, I look back to see the whole line smiling back at me. I think I am going to like it here.

The gray clouds open up and spit warm rain as we squeeze out of the car. As it starts to pour, I laugh. Of course. First day in a new country, in flip flops in the rain. Its becoming a bit of a ritual. We head down an ancient cobbled alley to Jean-Luc and Isabelle’s favorite kebab restaurant, tucked in the basement in one of many beautiful old buildings.

I ask for the French word for rain. Pluie

As I eat my kebab sandwich and pomme frites, I learn manger (eat) and boire (drink), I learn ici (here). Je suis ici (I am here.)

After driving me miles to the nearest open store and helping me find my way around, Jean-Luc and Isabelle then insist on buying my dinner. I try to fight it, but do not want to offend either. Instead of attitude, all I get on my first day in France is utter and absolute kindness.  More than before I throw myself into my floundering French as we finish up the pomme frites.

Isabelle, who speaks no English, joins the fun of helping me with French as we say little words over and over. Then the restaurant owner joins in. Repeating, listening, laughing, as my unfamiliar tongue trips over the slightest accent of its new toys. It’s frustrating-fun, to sound so “dumb” in front of other grownups. To get a word wrong, over and over…and over and over again…and just when I think I get it, I get it wrong.

But I laugh–I realize already, in less than un jour, I know more French than I ever have in my entire life. And it’s not just me who notices, when I express my compliments in best stuttering French, the owner smiles graciously. Then exchanges rapid-fire French with Jean-Luc and Isabelle. I can tell they are talking about me and wait for the verdict.

Jean-Luc turns to me: She says you are very smart. You learn so much French in one day. She is very pleased you are here.

Vache (Remembering “Cow” in French & Trying Not to Say it…)

I flip through my newly minted “French” travel dictionary as the tiny plane touches down in the tiniest airport: Perpignan, France.

Talking softly to the headrest in front of me, I practice dropping the last syllable off words in my dictionary in an effort to sound more “French” since the French I actually know is quite limited. (And I have strategically located myself close to the Spanish border just in case all the condescension for non-speakers turns out to be true and I need a little Spanish-language self-esteem boost from time to time….that and I wanted to be in wine country as I will always be amazed at what tequila did in my college days for my salsa dancing skills!).

Walking across the tarmac, I softly recount everything I know:

  • Oui (Yes)
  • S’il vous plait (Please)
  • Merci (Thank you)
  • Un, deux, trois (1,2,3)

735My more advanced phrases come a little more slowly:

  • Comment allez-vouz? (how are you?)
  • Comment vous appelez vous? (what is your name?)
  • Je m’appelle… (My name is…)

Then I’m laughing and grasping at little French straws in the Perpignan sunshine as my vocabulary degrades:

  • Vous le vouz ley bur? (would you pass the butter?)
  • Mon petit chou chou (my little cabbage…)
  • Jouyeax noel (merry Christmas and the nickname my oldest sister and Francophile ironically named “Mercy” as in “Comment vous appelez vous?” “Je m’appelle Mercy” “Merci?! Non, Non…Com-ment vous ap-pel-ez vous?!”)

The last two…no, the last three are probably not that useful. I thought I knew more. Oh:

  • Vache! (cow! I realized I know cow from somewhere when I heard it on that one movie…)

I see my orange pack sitting in a clump.

I see an older French man with the gray-black pony tail that Martina had told me about: Jean-Luc, my airport transport!

And before me, is a short, quickly moving line of travelers flashing passports of European descent and are unceremoniously waved through.

I give a smile & wave to Jean-Luc. Smooth sailing, I think.

Then the white-haired short man in the blue customs uniform swipes the passport from my unsuspecting hand: “American!” he rolls the r accusingly…

I feel like I’ve been caught. Ugh, what did my country do now.

He waves me to follow him out of the queue and I try to think of what to say, what language to use, Saya, Alstublief, Por favor…no French. I try make sure I do NOT accidentally say the last French word I remembered. Vash. What was my other French?!

He talks excitedly to another man in uniform. He waves his arms, as if summoning the wind or talking about a massive problem I’ve just created, perhaps its a bomb threat. I stand there summoning my most helpless look. I really have no idea what is going on. That’s how foreign French is to me.

In the drama that I’ve apparently ignited, they completely ignore me. Except to point in my direction, with a string of words that sound the opposite of inviting. The old man flips through the pages of my passport, then finds what he’s been looking for. He points and barks more orders. (I’m waiting for the men with guns to come trotting in to take me away at this point.)

Then both men bend over my offending passport, as the old man holds the page steady, by making a square with his fingers next to the South Hampton, UK insignia.

The younger man raises his arm. Then lowers it to the page. A clink of a stamp registering my arrival.

The old man’s back stiffens to full attention. He turns on his heel, my blue passport in hand, a massive grin on his white-mustached face.

He offers it to me with accented-English: “A Frrrrrench souvenirrrr.” (wink and a grin)

I laugh and bow, “merci boucoup” with all my heart, grab my pack and follow Jean-Luc to one of the ten cars in the entire airport parking lot.