The Best People

The Crown, S2:E4 “Beryl”

TONY: You’ve probably never been on a bus, have you?

PRINCESS MARGARET: (puffs on her cigarette) No.

TONY: Pity. You really do meet the best people.

I don’t mind riding the bus. When the temperature is crisp and precipitation is less than predictable, it’s worth a good hair day to check the schedule, validate that ticket on my phone, and hop on the number 28 to some of my familiar, if not favorite, places.

I’d had a wonderful morning with some friends and needed to scurry to the grocery store to grab a few (ha!) things for upcoming festivities at our apartment. The bus would be another 5 minutes and since I was most likely the oldest person waiting, I parked my tired boo-hiney (West Virginian for buttocks) on the not-so-clean wooden bench to await my extra long limo. A woman, most likely near my age, joined me on the seat then began speaking to me en francais.

“J’aime tes chaussures.” I smiled, and immediately told her, in French, that I spoke only a little of the language. She was not deterred from pursuing conversation, so I tried in my best bad French to tell her I walk a lot in these shoes, because I couldn’t remember the French word for “comfortable” (which is, of course, confortable— almost the same word with a French accent!!). She spoke a bit of English, I spoke a bit of French, as she told me her sister had a bad foot and footwear like mine would be good for her. (Was that a compliment? I hadn’t thought of my sandals as orthopaedic).

My bus arrived, and it was, of course, her bus, too. I boarded and sat against the window, and as she approached I realized she was going to sit with me, so I patted the seat and smiled at her. She introduced herself: Marianne had lived in Luxembourg for a very long time, though she was originally from Cameroon. Her skin was beautiful brown, as she pointed to her hand and said her children were the same color, though her husband is Luxembourgish. We talked about how Luxembourg is a country of peace and the people are nice. We chatted about window shopping at La Belle Etoile and cooking. She swore the prepared chicken wings at that Cactus were better than any other Cactus store in the country. She told me her husband is a good man, and asked if I had a good man, too. When I answered, she smiled broadly and we both nodded.

As we parted ways, she squeezed my hand, and I told her I hoped to see her again.

It was no random occurrence, the encounter with Marianne, in my heart or in my mind. In this place, so foreign and far from home, I’m finding a human touch, a smile, a word goes a long way in making me feel like I belong or matter or make a difference.

Have you been on a bus in Luxembourg? You really do meet the best people…

Watch your language!

Duolingo only goes so far. In French, I now know how to refer to a black cat, the red dress, and to identify men who are rich and calm. The bells and pings associated with correct responses on the app are incredibly rewarding, and when that bubble pops up saying I’m 15 percent fluent in French–oo la la! At that point, I’m positive I can have a meaningful conversation with all of French-speaking Luxembourg! And then…I’m in DelHaize in the checkout line with my little pull along basket instead of the bigger “chariot.” A friendly associate approaches me in the busy store, français flying, and I attempt to decipher her words, expression, and gestures. She doesn’t understand why I don’t understand, and just like that, we’re in a language stand-off. I’m defeated again, as the sweet cashier takes pity on me. That’s right…this has happened before…

Now my dear husband and I spend two evenings a week in a classroom. Our beginning French class includes students from Norway, Romania, Poland, Portugal, Germany, Russia, and Australia. Mark and I are the oldest in the class by 30 years, we’re the only Americans, the only ones who speak only one language. The teacher is young, kind and encouraging, speaking French alone all class, as she directs us to dialogue with each other. After four classes, our confidence is growing. Just last weekend, as Mark waited for me at IKEA, he phoned and made reservations at a restaurant–EN FRANÇAIS!! Last night as we were dining with friends and were introduced to the owner of the restaurant, he asked if I spoke French. I replied in my most practiced, “Je parle un peu de français.” His comic response, with his Luxembourgish accent was, “Sounds to me like you speak a little American!”

Truly, the people in Luxembourg have been warm and welcoming. The language barrier makes us more uncomfortable than it does them. Mark and I will most likely never be fluent in French, and we’re okay with that. We would appreciate, however, being able to skipper this European adventure in a more manageable way, without language blowing us off course!  In the meantime, I’ll be practicing…les robes sont rouges…la femme mange une pomme…and using Google Translate.