Correspondence from France

by Emma Wood – Brest, France

Last night we celebrated my little host brother’s birthday: all five siblings, two parents, and me, the American, gathered around a choclatey, buttery cake. Like any 11-year-old, my brother ripped open his gifts; then he proceeded to walk around the table kissing each gift-giver on the cheek.  “Merci, Emma! Merci pour les bon-bons.”

It is the people in France, not the cute shops or cathedrals, who make my time here bizarre and wonderful.

When you first arrive, you notice only the chic types: the women who wear tiny neck scarves and peck each other’s cheeks as a greeting and could borrow clothes from Calista Flockhart. You notice the merchants: the neighborhood boulanger who sells you your pain-au-chocolat. You notice that your host family members all wear polo shirts and decorate in bright red plaid and your sister models for L’Oreal. “What!?” you say. “Where am I?”

When you’ve been here a week, you notice instead the young parents who walk their children to school, hurried, wearing half-buttoned sweaters. You notice the old women who meet for tea and the man in rather too-tight jeans who waits for the bus, same place every morning.

You notice that the nice stranger you asked about the bus schedules has in fact been drinking too much beer, in fact has a 12-year-old waiting at home, in fact has forgotten what’s sweet about life; and suddenly the roles are switched and you, the foreigner, become the helper. (Chocolate, not beer, to drown you troubles!” I told her).

The small encounters begin to feel more normal, more real. In a store, a woman my grandmother’s age asked me to model a turtleneck (pink, tight and sparkly) to see how it might look on her granddaughter.

Already I’ve been all over the city, talking with every variety of stranger, just in the process of finding classes, food, and my way back home in the evening. I was proud of myself last term when I ventured outside of Olin! (Here if one wants to go anywhere, one takes five trams, then catches a bus and walks the last three kilometers.  One shovels down “kebabs au fromage” (the grilled cheese of France) on the way to hip-hop class at the University sports complex.

All the while, my head is filling with language. I speak in French, write in English, and in my head it’s all swirled like soft-serve ice cream. I start to ask myself what it is that characterizes a language. What can a person communicate in one and not in the other? People tell me that Russian has the greatest number of words to describe the soul. The Eskimos have more words for snow than I could ever distinguish. How funny to notice that language actually alters what one thinks about.

I’m disguised now in skinny-pants and mascara, but I remain your loyal Chaco-wearing, spinach-eating informant. A bientot!

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