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The Foreigner MAG
The sun began to drift away, darkness curling between the mountains. The Alps slowly withdrew into the night, and I watched from my window as they disappeared. I was the only one who took notice of the mountains, striped in green, white, and gray, stretching effortlessly into the sky. To me, they were fascinating – looming, triumphant, protective. To everyone around me, they were simply home, barely meriting a second glance.
With the arrival of dusk, a pair of headlights floated into our tiny driveway. I tiptoed down the stairs to greet them, passing the dinner table that was already set on the patio. Soon, a sliced baguette would be placed on the table, a reminder of how far I was from home. I had been in France less than a week, but it already seemed like forever.
As a family of four made their way from the car to our table, my host parents ran to greet them with a kiss on each cheek. I assumed that they were friends of Maryse and Fabien, the couple I was living with. I trusted this assumption, as I had been forced to make many of them in recent days.
There are few experiences more exhausting than waking and having people tell you important information in a language you barely understand while you attempt to shake the sleepiness from your head. Guesses, approximations, and assumptions were all I could go by. Therefore, I had greatly honed my skills in figuring out what was being said while really having little idea at all. Countless times I had nodded enthusiastically, all the while hoping I wasn't agreeing to something I would regret.
The newcomers and my host parents settled in at the dinner table, and I sat next to one of our guests, a young man named Jean-Luc. He was of medium height, with a reassuring smile and a knitted sweater. I have noticed that those two often go hand in hand. Then the conversation began.
I was trapped in a bubble. The air around me was tangible, and I imagined it to be muffling the words I spoke. Each sound I made seemed to softly melt away some time between entering my thoughts and leaving my mouth. As soon as the struggling sentence left my lips, my eyes squinted, focusing as closely as I could on Jean-Luc as he delivered his response.
My mind scrambled to catch sounds I recognized, anything to help me piece together a meaning. I assembled the puzzle pieces, trying to determine what was needed to fill in the gaps. In my brain, Jean-Luc's words had roughly been translated into “How mmfm you ntnnnt in France?” This was the best I was going to get; time for a guess. “Je vais reste en France pour tout de Juiliet,” I answered, hoping my response fit his question. He continued to talk, which was a good sign. If I had answered incorrectly, he would have looked slightly confused, and said, “Quoi?” I was in the clear.
French dinners are no small occasion. First come drinks and light snacks. These might include carrots and dip, sliced tomatoes, or thin pieces of sausage. Next the salad and bread appear, followed by the main course, almost always meat. After this, a platter of cheese is brought to the table, and lastly, a dessert, such as ice cream. All in all, the dining experience takes at least two and a half hours.
Throughout the meal, the members of the dinner party endlessly converse, laugh, and debate. Therefore, dinner was quite the challenge for me, having studied only two years of French before being thrown face first into a sea of fast talkers who knew little English.
Oddly, despite the extravagance of five courses, I rarely saw my host parents cooking. Occasionally Fabien would get up to check the grill, but in general, food was prepared as though it were part of a top-secret James Bond mission. In fact, one time I crept downstairs at one in the morning only to witness my host mother preparing the following day's supper in almost total darkness.
This evening, beef sizzled on the grill, cooked just enough to brown the outsides but leave the insides a bloody red. Maryse and Fabien often picked on me for wanting my meat more well done. “You are so American,” they would laugh. I resented this. However, after I told them about my political views and dislike of American football, they decided I was not actually a “real” American.
“Genna, joue le guitar pour Jean-Luc!”
I suddenly snapped back to the present conversation. It was far too easy to drift off while people made unintelligible sounds for hours.
“Oh, non non non!”
A guitar was thrust into my hands by Jean-Luc, and he gave me a small shrug. I sighed and began to play. Unfortunately, I seemed to have temporarily forgotten everything. Helping me with this dilemma, Fabien plopped a laptop in the center of the table. My face hovered on the screen in a video of me playing a song I had written and posted online. I cringed. Well, at least the fact that I am singing in a foreign tongue will sound impressive, I thought. Everything sounds cooler in another language.
After that, I began working harder to join in the conversation. Jean-Luc played the guitar, and we searched the Internet for the chords to American songs. I had quickly learned that American culture was more popular in France than in the U.S. In my host sister's bedroom (where I had been staying while she was at camp), the walls were lined with photographs of “High School Musical” stars, while every season of “Charmed” sat on her shelf. My host brother's friends could sing every song from “Grease,” although I wondered if they knew what the words meant. In France, the music that was considered “hit American songs” hadn't been at the top of the charts in the States for 10 to 15 years.
As Jean-Luc played and we talked, we referred to my French-English dictionary. The tiny volume, spine creased from use, corners slightly curled, had become my bible, with every word I needed to survive tucked neatly in a 4-by-4 inch book.
The search for words spawned new conversations about our differences, our similarities. A map appeared on the table, and we studied it for an hour as I pointed to my home on the other side of the ocean. I was shown where we currently sat, where each family vacationed in the summer, the shore of the Mediterranean, which I was soon to visit, the path of the train that had carried me from Paris to this southern town of Chirens.
The sky was completely black and the mountains had retreated into the night, with just the faintest outline reassuring me of their presence. I was laughing at Fabien's jokes, engaged with every word of Maryse's motherly advice. A second dictionary had been brought out, as well as an atlas.
The more I spoke, the more confident I became; the more confident I became, the more mistakes I made. And with each mistake, we again dove into the pages of the dictionary, and I returned with a scrap of knowledge I hadn't had before. We talked about our lives, cultures, and traditions.
With each similarity we found, the world seemed to grow a bit smaller. I realized just how little I knew; even the simplest words were missing from my French vocabulary. The precision of my gestures sharpened. If I had played a game of charades that evening, I would have won, without a doubt.
The moon was suspended by a thread in the clear sky. Chirens was always beautiful. The sunny days belonged on a postcard, with the greenest of fields and the bluest of skies. The hills of this town were topped not with corporate buildings but crumbling castles, seemingly born in a fairy tale. A large lake in a valley of the Alps never ceased to be sprinkled colorfully with sailboats, and the tops of the mountains were crowned in white. Even the rainy days were out of the ordinary. Instead of heavy drops, a light mist would fall over the town, which I liked to imagine hid tiny sprites and fairies. There always seemed to be something mystical about the rain there.
Tonight, however, clouds were nowhere to be found, and a chilling breeze danced through the town, gliding over the lake, laughing and twirling through fields of sunflowers, which had bowed their heads to sleep. I shivered as a chill ran through me, and the playful evening wind tossed my hair. I closed my dictionary for a moment and took another bite of slightly raw meat.
As it neared midnight, dinner drew to a close. Jean-Luc picked up his guitar, and he and his family rose to leave. Kisses on each cheek were again exchanged before the car doors swung shut. Headlights once more lit the pavement, and I turned back to the house. It is strange saying good-bye to someone you barely know and will never see again – a person who only exists for you in a corporeal state for a matter of hours, days, weeks, but for the rest of your life lives in memory. I met many people in this way.
After dragging myself groggily up the steps, I fell into my room, the last notes of Jean-Luc's guitar still playing in my head. My bed was warm and inviting, feeling a bit like home. I placed the dictionary beside the bed. There were a few new wrinkles in the spine and a slight fraying in the curled corners. My journal in my lap, I tried to reconstruct the evening. I was surprised at the effort it took to write in English.
The Alps stared through my window, as strong and protective as they had been for thousands of years. At last, when I had filled five pages, I fell asleep. I don't remember what happened in my dreams that night, but I do know one thing: they were almost entirely in French.