What’s in a name?

by Emma Wood – France

I had just settled in with tea and a book when my host father came into the kitchen, pulled up a stool and began to pluck the feathers one by one from his freshly shot partridge. “Don’t worry, it’s under the table,” he said, and I nonchalantly nodded—inwardly squirming at every mysterious crackle.

He’s the type of man who’s always occupied with his children, his news or his mirror and necktie, so with the pretext of reading I began to grill him. “Where did you meet Beatrice? Did you grow up together in Nantes?” In snooping through the family photos, I had come across a wedding photo (in which they couldn’t have been much out of high school) in an ancient-looking tiny stone church. The church at “Les Lucs sur Boulougne” (just outside Nantes) is the same where their daughter Alexia will be married next June. “People don’t often move far from where they grow up,” he explained. “When we talk about ‘birthcity,’ we say ‘berceau.’”—which means, in English, ‘crib.’ Poetic, isn’t it? He didn’t see it.

What poets, what pragmatists these people are! I never much liked geography, geology, or anything that involved memorizing lists of names with no immediate application (What 12-year-old needs to know the capital city of Ghana?). But now, as I travel, I begin to see how vital these names are; not just names of places, but names for rocks and restaurants. I see now why Hashimoto is obsessed with names, and why my crazy geology housemates always talk about scarps. Nantes, Saint Malo, Mont Saint Michel, la Place Mellinet, Place Canclaux, and my favourite: Rue des Trois Croissants! People care about their places, enough to give a name to every last scrap of dirt. You never know what one little name will open up in conversation. Even “France” unlocked mysterious pieces of history in people I thought I knew well. “My daughter’s in France.” “I lived in Paris when my husband worked for the military.” “I worked in the south of France as a nanny, just out of high school.”

The BFG collected dreams; I am collecting names to bottle up and bring back to the states. Names of cities, creperies—names to give reference points for all the stories I’ll want to tell. But I don’t want to be that type of tourist who lives with the perpetual thought of her post-trip PowerPoint presentation.

Names of places mean little unless they’re places lived-in and well-loved: Good old General Mellinet who points, with his dagger fiercely in hand, in the direction of my house. Le Cigale, the plush restaurant where I huddle over five-euro hot chocolate on rainy afternoons. Oh, I want to see everything! But countries come best in small bites.

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