Soggy clumps of the floral wallpaper fall onto my forearm as I shove the paint scraper upward against the wall. The muted green and pastel pink pattern, once so popular decades ago, now gives way to the soft, white plaster beneath it.
“Shit,” I mutter. I’ve dug too deeply with the scraper and left a gouge in the wall. A dusting of plaster lands on my chest and I wriggle my nose from its tickle. The wooden floor of the small guest room is covered in shredded wallpaper from hours of tireless wetting and scraping. Yellow sunlight pours in from the large window behind me, warming the backs of my legs. I kneel to the blue plastic bucket at my feet and dunk a paintbrush into the murky suds. With a groan, I stand, coating the wall with water. The muted grunting of a drill on the roof bumps above me, filling the house with the dense sounds of labor.
My thoughts carry me away from the mundane task to the small French town I visited yesterday. Saint Antonin sits quaintly on the bank of the River Aveyron. Aveyron is one of the first words I ever said with a proper French accent, the gutteral “r” bubbling up from my throat, thick and purring. Linda called my French accent “magnificent,” though I politely disagree.
The buildings stare at each other across narrow, cobbled alleyways, their grey, stone faces coated with thick ivy. Pale green shades layer upon darker, mossy leaves, and potted flowers bloom in every open window, wooden shutters stamping rectangles of blue and red and brown on the white facade. Many of the buildings carry the lonely, broken slump of the long-abandoned, as it’s virtually impossible to disinherit any of your children in France, even the blackest of the sheep. Homes and businesses are split countless ways amongst the many children of historically large, Catholic families, and any action requires unanimous agreement. After years of angry phone calls and stubborn uncles, a once cozy and purposeful space falls into disarray, forgotten.
The town’s Sunday market is a sight to behold. Most of the stands are run by elderly couples, toddling around each other behind wooden crates of richly-colored vegetables. Wisps of white hair escaping beneath their berets, the farmers appear sulky with their jutting chins and over-sized trousers. They are the perfect camera fodder, but I find myself frustrated by my lack of language and hesitate, thumbing my camera in the bottom of my bag. I desperately want to photograph these traditional, character-laden people, but I don’t know how to ask and I don’t want to be assumptive or look like a gaping American tourist (though I suppose that’s exactly what I am). I find myself afraid of being embarrassed or shunned, which is somewhat ironic. To butcher a Roosevelt-ism, the only thing that’s embarrassing is embarrassment itself. I try to take Potts advice on the matter:
…the secret to intereacting with people in foreign lands is not to fine-tune your sense of political correctness (which itself is a Western construct) but to fine-tune your sense of humor… the ability to laugh at yourself and take things in stride can thus be the key to enduring strange new cultural situations.
Easier said than done. I walk away without the photo.
Several nights later, Linda and Simon had their French friends over for dinner. Jacqueline and Charles speak very little English, but the table is loud; the beautiful sounds of southern French language wafting and melding above the table with the spicy, heavy scent of Linda’s chili bubbling in the nearby kitchen. It’s a dramatic language, both delicate and harsh, with long, drawn-out “uh’s” and “sh’s” chopped by visceral consonants. Jacqueline and Linda lean towards each other, their heads almost touching, the clear intimacy of dear friends. Charles is babbling at Simon, who occasionally nods in a way that betrays his minimal understanding. Bassche, to my right, is quietly wololfiing down his third helping of meat pate. Occasionally, he leans over to translate for me. “Charles is explaining to Simon how to get rid of the big hornets on the porch,” or “Linda is telling Jacqueline how we cooked too much pasta last night.” I nod and smile, grateful not only for his translation, but also for his silence, which means I’m not the only one outside of the bustling conversation. I admire Linda’s hands as they shoot in the air, gesturing about the enormous pot of penne we made by accident. Jacqueline smiles – a beautiful smile, all cheeky dimples and crinkled eyes – and they both burst into laughter, warming the room like a wood fire. It never ceases to astonish me how much of communication has nothing to do with vocabulary or verb conjugation or accent or even speaking. When language becomes obsolete, I am suddenly aware of the people around me. Not what the say or think or how they talk, but the other things that make up a person. Jacqueline’s soft hand squeezing my arm, such a sweet, natural gesture, much like the woman herself. The light in Linda’s eyes when she tells a story, the way Simon narrows his eyes and crosses his arms when he’s thinking and envisioning plans for their new home. The deep, unmistakeable rumble of Charles’ voice.
I am plucked from my reverie when, across the table, Charles picks up the neck of the wine bottle and overturns it, glugging red liquid straight into his pea soup. I raise an eyebrow and cock my head at him quizzically.
“Oui,” he says simply, pouring some into Simon’s bowl. Simon chuckles and lifts his bowl in his hands to sip.
“Oh, Charles,” Linda scolds. She leans over to me.
“Don’t pay attention to him,” she laughs. “He’s a heathen! An absolute heathen!”
The wine bottle is now outstretched over my bowl. Charles looks at me over his glasses, waiting for approval.
“Oui,” I say.
“Ah, la france profonde,” he says, satisifed. I stir the thin, crimson stream into my thick soup and bring a spoonful to my lips. I slurp delicately, nervous about the combination of tangy wine and savory vegetables. I am surprised when they compliment each other.
“Oui,” I say with a smile. The entire table laughs and I’m not embarrassed in the least.
Deep France, indeed.