Ever so long ago (it seems), I spent a summer between college terms wandering around France, as free and aimless as if it were an amusement park on a weekday in winter. Today, I look out the dormer window of my aunt and uncle’s house in Ville de Quebec and wonder where all that moxie came from.
I suppose it’s not that great a mystery. It came from desperation–from a good five years’ worth of bottled-up longing to see the world and speak another language that none of the folks back home could understand.
Language is such a crazy thing. You learn pieces of it and it opens you up. But then, just as you’re all opened up, it suddenly fails you. Just as you start reaching for more, it starts holding you back from behind.
Here I am in French Canada, spitting distance from the US border, and fearing to leave the house for more than a run across the riverbank because I don’t have the chops get in the deep conversation with anyone I might meet.
Words are my currency; my ability with them is what I trust. Take them away, and I’m just a floating face. I don’t know who I am, without them.
Appeler un chat un chat
Vingt-quatre heures sur vingt-quatre
Pleuvoir à boire debout
Uncle Tim says “Do you like fudge?” and I shrug. But the light in the shop is warm and the steps lead downward–that’s all it takes to pull me in.
There are boxes whose dark and tawny colors match the chocolate inside, decorated with dried pimentos and nonpareils. The display case is an interplay of golden light and shadow on the marzipan lollipops shaped like robots, dolls and hedgehogs. There are logs of chocolate wrapped in string nets, that hang from the ceiling like curing meats. There is a popcorn machine with paper cones stacked beside it, and candied pecans piled inside.
Let’s be real–it’s not like it’s always easier in English.
I fiddle with words while I’m in the shower, waiting for water to boil, chewing on my fingernails, driving…and then I sit down and the words scatter for the corners. They open their wings and push powerfully away, unhurried, like the bird that realized you were trying to take its picture.
Flatter dans le sens du poil
A bon chat, bon rat
Aunt Barb whispers at me to get my attention; a girl is coming round with a tray piled, with improbable generosity, with squares of red-brown candy studded with darker, dusty-black bits.
It tastes like campfire smoke and salt and cake mix and cognac.
It tastes like none of those things really, but that’s the best I can do.
C’est fun au boutte.
We walk out into the sunlight, regretfully, and I say, “Wow. When you said ‘fudge’…”
Uncle Tim laughs. “You were thinking Mackinac Island?”
I was thinking pasty slabs of wan colors with the slobby corners folded over. I wasn’t thinking of anything that could offer a purchase to the teeth or tongue. I was thinking of the brain’s obligatory appreciation of powdered sugar, and pain between the gums. I wasn’t anticipating the need for any words other than “sweet.”
J’ai hâte de…
Passer du coq à l’âne
But sometimes the words simply spurt, like blood from a hangnail. Tease and worry it enough, and I’ll find I’ve begun to bleed, with a curiously hearty and wholesome pain that feels like healing.
I’m too grateful to be resentful that I can’t figure out the method for making this happen whenever I want it to. I just prod the wound, until it’s rendered all that it can.
Avoir un chat dans la gorge
Parler français comme une vache espagnole
I’m not sure if I know better, or worse, what I want to say when the words aren’t there.
I do know that as sad and frustrated as it makes me when I can’t find them, I’m actually quite happy at how I can’t be happy without them.
Les Mignardises Doucinet is on 717 Boulevard Louis-XIV in Ville de Quebec.