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My children have come up with a new game that sends them into fits of laughter. They ask me to say something, anything, in their native tongue.
"J'adore la couleur rouge," I love the color red, I say, aware that the kids will have a linguistical one-up-on-mom heyday with all those screaming r's: adore-rouge-couleur.
My ten-year-old's face lights up and, with a grin, Max mimics me, "J'adorrr la couleurrr rrrouge!" he says, putting a lot of emphasis on the French consonant that I have mispronounced. My son is only teasing me. These days he is more fascinated by my American accent than embarrassed by it.
Next, eight-year-old Jackie gets the spotlight. "J'adoRRR la couleuRRR RRRouge!" she says, amused to mimic my unrolled (un-French) "r."
When it's my husband's turn, he pronounces the sentence as he's heard it, further twisting my American accent.
"ZHAH DORRRRR LAH COO-LERRR ROOZH!" he says, batting his eyelashes for effect.
Max and Jackie are now snorting. At this point, I'm holding my stomach as well, and wipe my eyes, laughing louder than even my children. Is my accent really that bad? How could that be? After twelve years living in France and conversing with the French it is as unchanged as the day I stepped off the plane in the Marseilles international airport straight from Arizona, to begin my new French life.
But however imperfectly, I can speak French! I can chew out and rattle off; I can small talk, sweet talk, and even talk back; I can crack a joke and, if need be, lay down the law, in a language that once intimidated me to the point of silence.
My love of all things French began sometime around the age of twelve. I don't remember what event preceded it, but I'll never forget my mother telling me, "In your last life, you must've been French!" (This was a remarkable statement considering our religious orientation: though we were Born Again we did not believe in reincarnation.) In high school I struggled through French class, receiving below-average grades. Though I loved French words, I did not like French grammar and rules. I still don't.
When I enrolled in the liberal arts program at Arizona State University, I was required to take two years of a foreign language. I gave French another try. A certain French teacher named Madame Wollam who did not mark up all of my papers in red, but corrected the lesson in question would forever change my outlook on the language: she assured me that French was something I could eventually understand if I would relax and not get hung up on my weak points vis-à-vis the language. With Mme. Wollam's encouragement, I signed up for an exchange program.
I spent fall semester in Lille, France. For a desert rat from Phoenix, the northern European city could have been an icy French hell. Thankfully, my host family, the Bassimons, provided a warm and welcoming home and I had another wonderful teacher, this time French. Mme. Rudio wrote out all of our grammar lessons in long hand before running them through the copy machine to hand out. It was she who would introduce me for the first time to French expressions, igniting my love for the language.
When fall break, or les vacances de la Toussaint, arrived, I joined a classmate and boarded an all-night train. Stepping off the platform in Aix-en-Provence, I knew instantly that the south of France was where I wanted to be forever. I stood in awe before the puzzle-skinned plane trees that lined an ancient cobblestone boulevard, the lively cafés that spilled out onto the bustling sidewalks, and the moss-covered fountains that acted as commas along an exclamation-packed boulevard.
After less than three months in Lille, fall semester ended and it was time to return home to the desert. While my classmates headed back to Arizona, I found a way to stay on in France, with permission from the department adviser to do an independent study. In exchange for college credit, I wrote about French culture as I had experienced it in Lille and in my new town, Aix, where I had moved. I was just buying time; for what, I did not know. What was sure was that I did not want to leave France. Not yet.
Back in Aix,
I was dancing the night away wholly devoted to study when I met my future (French) husband. He barely spoke to me the night we met, but his first words to me before even "Bonsoir" were "Il faut qu'on se revoit," we must see each other again. His dramatic greeting stopped time. When he handed me his card, I thought I had stepped into the pages of a fairy tale. Beneath his name, "Jean-Marc Espinasse," were the words "Roy d'Espagne," King of Spain.
All that following week, just days before I would return to Phoenix, Jean-Marc and I would rendez-vous for drinks at Le Grillon along Aix's historic tree-lined Cours Mirabeau and share spring rolls or nems at a Chinese restaurant tucked into a quiet quarter of the city Cézanne once called home. Eager to share his love for the countryside, my royal companion whisked me away to the Provençal hinterland, to where the earth turned red and yellow in the town of Roussillon, and to Gordes, where the houses are made of local rock: souvenirs I would cling to during the separation that loomed before us.
The night before I returned to Phoenix, Jean-Marc's mother welcomed me with open arms at their home in Marseilles, located in an apartment complex known as "Le Roy d'Espagne." Like that, the "title" on the card beneath Jean-Marc's name turned out to be an address. King or not, I had already fallen in love.
The next day I said a teary au revoir to Jean-Marc and returned to Tempe to finish my final year of school. We had exchanged phone numbers and addresses, but no promises for the future; those vows had already taken hold somewhere inside of us.
When I graduated with an honors degree in French the following year, ads mentioning "French language a plus" weren't exactly crowding the classifieds in Phoenix, so I seized the first opportunity I could find. I tried my luck as a receptionist for a construction company with ties to France. But the only ties to France it had for me turned out to be opening the mail that was sent from there.
Jean-Marc began to send me postcards of the French countryside. "I still think of you," the first card said. I noticed the dove on the facing side, just above the old blue window shutters. From then on, images of his Provence arrived in my mailbox weekly. Rolling lavender fields, the old stone cabanon with its colorful chipped shutters and a valley of sunflowers beckoned; Jean-Marc had thoughtfully penned in messages such as, "Notre maison?" our house? next to the warm scenes of country life.
A dozen postcards later, we began talking seriously about a move my move to France. The plans soon came together and, within a month, I quit my job, packed three cardboard U-Haul boxes, and flew to Marseilles. That October, autumn leaves fell in Provence as I bid adieu to the desert.
Jean-Marc found us an apartment at La Point Rouge, an old fishing quarter in the ninth district or arrondissement of Marseilles. The windows from our tiny kitchen and living room overlooked the quiet Mediterranean port. Jean-Marc gave me a tour of the neighborhood, pointing out la boulangerie, l'épicerie or grocer's, and la poissonnerie, where the morning's catch was laid bare on ice, fish eyes intact and glazed over, rows of sharp pearly whites daring one to order.
We checked out the centre-ville, speeding through the ancient city on Jean-Marc's Kawasaki. When vehicles backed up, he eased the dirt bike onto the sidewalk and we weaved in and out of pedestrian traffic. My arms circled his waist to temper all the zigzagging and curb hopping and drawing me closer to him.
In addition to helping me with my paperwork to obtain a carte de séjour the official document from the French government giving me the right to reside in France Jean-Marc found me a job which I began four days after touching down on French dirt. When I told him I did not think I could teach English at the Chamber of Commerce, he assured me, "Tout va bien se passer," everything will go just fine. And it did, for a time.
By Christmas the novelty of setting up house in a foreign country was wearing off. The "playschool" appliances were no longer cute but annoying, the sit-down showers were no longer funky but cramped, room-flooding, and ridiculous, the mistral wind no longer exhilarated, it froze and chapped. I began to long for the ease and user-friendliness of my hometown: the wide driving lanes and easy-to-navigate roads, the large washer/dryer combo I had at my last home, drive-through banking, and department stores where you can buy anything from tires to toothpaste.
While I struggled with my homesickness, Jean-Marc had a close-knit circle of friends to call, visit, or invite over when he felt like company or needed moral support. And though he shared them with me, it was not the same. While he was cozy and complete in his French element, I was fronting the blizzard of Foreign Ways of Being, or French mentality and etiquette. The strange faces ignoring me on the bus each morning did little to comfort, and a yearning for my own friends, family, and hometown grew.
After a series of plate-shattering disagreements we came to the conclusion that things were not working out. Even still, I was deeply disappointed when Jean-Marc took the initiative and drove me to the travel agent's to purchase my one-way ticket home.
Back in Arizona I found a job selling scale-model cars for a small mail-order catalog, which turned out to be the perfect nurse-your-broken-heart job. Isolated and working in an over-air-conditioned office, I had plenty of time to think about my loss and to watch my French life flash before me: the cottage we had moved into just before I left, the weekends spent fishing oursins, or sea urchins, along the rocky coastline, and the authentic homemade meals we so often shared with his friends and family. Most of all, I remembered one Frenchman's promise to give me all of the love growing inside him, and how he had, but I hadn't felt confident enough to take it, or was too preoccupied to give it back to him.
Back in Phoenix, I found my friends and family carrying on with their own lives, meeting career goals and/or busy in their own relationships and projects. While they were happy to see me back and hey, let's meet for a beer sometime they were also occupied, having other fish to fry.
While Phoenix was warm, predictable, and easy to navigate, Marseilles, with its violent winds and uncertain tomorrows now pulsed with life and color within my memory. After two emotionally gray seasons in the Valley of the Sun, I sold my car and told myself I had enough cash to get by in France for six months. I knew the truth was more like three or four. I ignored reason and packed my bags once more.
The tricky part was convincing Jean-Marc that this was the right decision for him, too. But he eventually came around and even welcomed me back with an offer to pick me up at the airport.
I was floored when he asked me to marry him almost as soon as I stepped off that plane. Along with a jittery "Oui!" in acceptance of his proposal, I promised myself that I would say "oui" to France, too, and change my attitude completely. I wish I could say my newfound fascination for a country that once stirred my preteen heart came right away, but it didn't. It came soon enough.
My son Max was born exactly one year after I reunited with Jean-Marc. Suddenly, the French were speaking to me. "Qu'il est beau, votre bébé," isn't he beautiful, your baby, complete strangers would say, approaching me, sometimes even tapping my arm to underline their point. The human contact felt good.
By the time Jackie was born, two years and four months after Max, I knew many of the other moms in our small village. We had moved from Marseilles to Saint-Maximin when Jean-Marc made an inspiring career change from accountant to wine sales, following a passionate calling that would bring him back to nature and away from crunching numbers beneath artificial light. I would eventually follow in his tracks, working for a Côtes de Provence vineyard for three years; there, I began to learn and better appreciate Jean-Marc's métier.
As our children learned to speak eventually correcting my French I became more aware of their growing language.
I learned a new slew of words French childspeak like "bobo," "dodo," and "doudou" (a hurt, sleeptime, and security blanket). As my children grew, so did my vocabulary. Though they understood and responded to me when I spoke English, occasionally answering back in the same language, they spoke French outside and, increasingly, inside the home.
When my son and daughter entered school, I became even more aware of my longtime love of these French words they were learning, and how they tied in to my everyday life. I even began writing some of them down. I decided to begin a weblog (www.french-word-a-day.com) in which to share my cross-cultural adventures, creating a column called "A Day in a French Life."
I offered readers the option to sign up to receive this daily newsletter, and they began to do so, by the thousands and across the globe, often sending their encouragement and kind wishes as well as corrections and, in so doing, helped me to find my writing voice.
My family has taken an active interest in my dream-come-vocation. Often the kids will stop mid-phrase and say, "Do you know this word, Mommy? You might use it for French Word-A-Day." They are also zeroing in on my accent these days. Let's hope they can fix that.
I still make sure to return to the States once a year and I have been lucky to have family visit me here. One of the richest moments in my French life was when my mother came here to heal from a broken hip, only to discover that she had cancer, and ended up staying for more than a year. Her verve and enthusiasm for the French, specifically the village folk, forced me to get out and interact, something I sorely needed to do, having lost touch with village life since we'd moved from Saint-Maximin to a new home in Les Arcs outside of the village center. To this day, villagers stop me on the street, asking for an update on "Jules" as they call her.
While I miss Jules and await her next visit, I thank her for helping me to realize to which continent my heart is now anchored. During an emotional good-bye before leaving France, she released me from her arms, looked into my eyes, and voiced my feelings:
"France is your home now," she said. Embracing Max, Jackie, and Jean-Marc she added, "and this is your family." Copyright ©2006 by Kristin Espinasse
My belle-mère is seated at the kitchen table sorting the baskets of apricots with Jean-Marc. She is wearing a black maillot de bain, which is hidden beneath her paréo. She has on Christian Dior sunglasses with lenses the size of drink coasters. The glasses remind me of a certain American who popularized this look thirty or so years ago. Around my belle-mère's neck rests a strand of little gold balls that make up the classic collier from Marseilles.
Last week Jean-Marc, Max, and Jackie picked the abricotier. Once all of the apricots from the lower branches were cueillis, my son climbed up the tree to liberate the out-of-reach fruit. When the apricots tumbled one by one onto his sister's head, she complained, "Aïe! Fais attention, Max!"
Earlier that day, my belle-mère had said to me, "I thought they were for decoration, those apricots." She was pointing to the baskets of tiny fruit, the color of which is best described as jaune orangé. Either she was teasing me again for not getting around to accomplishing one more domestic chore in this case, the putting up of fruit, or at least the preparing of it for a pie or fruit salad, before it goes bad or this year's apricots really do look too perfect to be real.
Back at the table I watch mother and son prepare fruit tarts. Michèle-France is using a traditional moule à tarte, while Jean-Marc is working with a casserole dish. Because the casserole is too narrow, Jean-Marc presses the excess dough along the tall walls of the dish. I think about how, if the deep dish tart were a fruit prison, the little halved apricots would have one hell of a time scaling those pastry walls.
This is the first tarte Jean-Marc has made since I've known him. Witnessing the complicity between mother and son, I imagine he rolled up his sleeves even as a child, slicing and sampling the fruit as it made its way to the prepared baking dish.
After lunch my belle-mère and moi remain at the table, enjoying a second slice of apricot pie. As we chat, we squint our eyes and twist our faces. If you happened to be a French mouche on the wall, you might get the impression that mother-in-law and belle-fille were barely tolerating each other. That is, unless you'd tasted that pie tart, but tasty and you'd realize they were sharing a silent rapture.
REFERENCES: la belle-mère (f) = mother-in-law; le maillot de bain (m) = swimsuit; le paréo (m) = wraparound skirt; le collier (m) = necklace; un abricotier (m) = apricot tree; cueillis (cueillir) = picked; Aïe! Fais attention, Max! = Ouch! Be careful, Max!; jaune orangé = yellow-orange-colored; le moule à tarte (m) = pie plate; la mouche (f) = fly; la belle-fille (f) = daughter-in-law
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cueillir des abricots = to pick apricots
• Copyright ©2006 by Kristin Espinasse