After reading and commenting on a post on another blog, I suddenly remembered the very thing that commenced my obsession with France.
It wasn’t my uncle who moved there when I was four. It wasn’t his bride, my new tati (French aunt) either. It wasn’t the marionette clown they brought me when they came to visit . It wasn’t when my grandparents bought tickets to France to see their expat son’s new life.
It was something that happened when they came back. It involved toilet paper. The year was 1978. I was 5. We went to pick Grandma and Grandpa up at the airport. I remember Grandma pulling out all the francs and centimes she’d brought back to give to her grandkids as souvenirs. I remember her teaching me words like grandmere, grandpere, bonjour, comment allez vous. It was all so exciting. So exotic. So chic!
And then, she pulled from her purse some precisely folded, intense-pink....toilet paper. She showed it to me as if it were a precious work of art. I felt it. It was coarse, scratchy. But the color, it was so pretty! She said, “This is what toilet paper in France is like!”
I don’t know why, but I suddenly felt that by touching it, it connected me to a fairytale place a gazillion miles away that I already loved. It was a place I knew I could never go to, and that made it so much more alluring.
When I had friends over, I would pull the pink paper out and say, “See how beautiful French toilet paper is! See how rough it feels?”
I began to ask my grandparents how to say things in French. To me, they were the most worldly wise people around. They knew EVERYTHING about France. Grandma would tell me how to say thank you…mare-see-bow-koo. How are you? Koh-mow-tallee-voo. Goodbye…oh-ree-vwore. And so on.
Grandma related stories of the French children who were seen and never heard unless spoken to. They were respectful, perfect and never bratty like all the loud, obnoxious American kids. French kids must be so much more sophisticated than moi, I reasoned. It's because they are French.
After my aunt and uncle started having kids, we would get photos sent to us of the cute little baby milestones. But me, I would look at the things behind the baby. I’d look for clues of French life on the dinner table in the background. Everything looked so different and exotic.
More trips to France by my grandparents made me more fixated on France, if not depressed that I couldn’t attain my dream.
And then, I was of the age and grade to start French class. Unlike my peers, who had no French connection, I hung on every word the teacher taught us. I pored over the French textbook at home and went chapters ahead of the class. I mimicked my aunt’s pronunciation so that I could sound as authentic as possible. I didn’t want to sound like my classmates. “Bawn-joor Mon-sewer. Com-enT-Tallee-vooz.“ So, I mastered the phlegm-y French “R“, to the chagrin of my peers who just thought I was showing off. Je ne “care” pas! I would say in Franglais…to myself!
And then, things started to unravel. My grandparents wanted to speak French with me now. As if a light was turned on, I suddenly recoiled when I heard them speak. My perfect, sophisticated (if only in French things) grandparents were…..horrible at French! Quel horreur! J’en peux plus to hear them say another word in in this beautiful tongue that they slaughtered the second they opened leurs bouches.
For years, as my grandmother would order our whole family to ‘par-lay on fron-say ah tob-luh’ (speak French at the table), and she would say things repeatedly to my non-bi-lingual parents and siblings like, “Passay-doo-berrrrr”. I said “Passay-doo-berrrrrrrrrrrrr, seel-tah-play!” (Pass the butter, I said pass the butter please!)
The day before my grandfather died, in his pain and suffering, he stopped speaking. No one could get him to utter a word. The next day, I tried again to get a response by talking about his grand kids, his tall tales I knew by heart, but no response. Just a blank stare, like death was approaching. And then, against my personal vow made when French classes began, I spoke French to him. He squeezed my hand, turned and looked at me with a sudden spark in his eyes. He spoke. In French. I asked him questions, he answered. In French. I asked him more questions. He answered. In French. I told him how much I loved him, how he was my hero even if he never knew it before. In French. He told me he loved me. In French. I said good-bye to him. In French. Never before did his French sound so perfect to my ears. He never spoke again. He was gone later that day.
Six years later, my aging grandmere wanted to go see her son and grandsons. She hadn’t been to France without Grandpa. She bought me a ticket. She started my fascination with France….and brought it around full circle for me and made my dream come true.
At that is how it all began.....and it hasn‘t ended yet.