Fogging Up in France

Every Wednesday, when the grocery truck arrives in the small French village I currently call home, I ask after my new favorite olives, les lucques (If you like olives, nuts, butter, bright green, or happiness, and you come across a lucque, put it in your mouth.). Every Wednesday, the grocery truck man looks at me slightly, I like to think, bemusedly, and repeats the word back to me–lucques–in a way that sounds, to my vowel-merging, overlarge Midwestern-American ears, identical to what I’ve just said. He is my best French teacher, and while this means that I’ll likely leave France with abilities relevant only in supermarkets and at grocery trucks (are you aware of any?), I would still like to be able to adequately thank Monsieur Epicerie for his patience. Unfortunately, I am operating at a level of French-speaking that has me envious of infants, because apparently they at least sound French.

This baby has no problem at l’??picerie.

I am not learning French, but I am unlearning English. At a holiday dinner in December, a housemate (whose first language is English) made the most indecently delicious truffle-oil mashed potatoes. We don’t have a masher or an electric mixer in the kitchen, and I wondered how she’d achieved such a creamy texture, so I asked her, “How did you get these so small in the lumps?” The word for this, my friends, is smooth. She laughed, I laughed, we all laughed. But I wondered what was going on in my brain, what language wiring was being rerouted, and what that might mean for my mess of a novel-in-progress. I need to keep my English words! I am trying to write a book!

Smoover still.

Despite a degree in book-writing and only advancing to disc four in this Pimsleur learn-French-in-your-car series, I am convinced I know even less about how to write a novel than I do about how to speak French. A favorite quote (in graduate school its popularity was neck-and-neck with Flannery O’Connor’s considerably less comforting comment regarding the ruinous effects of novel-writing on one’s appearance) amongst the first-time novelists I’ve known is E.L. Doctorow’s: Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

The fog in France.

There’s some joy in fog, mostly when it lifts. I am admittedly eager to discover how my own novel will end. And I don’t mind the blend of disdain and delight the French greet me with when I mangle their language, nor am I opposed to giving my English-speaking friends a laugh at my now-also-English-mangling expense. I took a walk in the knee-high snow a few days ago and ran into the mayor, whose companion was snapping pictures of him with her phone. I asked, I thought I asked, “Photo de deux?” Their breath was white in the air when they laughed. “It sounded like you asked them if they wanted a photo of god,” my own companion explained. Learning feels like this sometimes: a rotten accent in a snowstorm, accidents you don’t understand but repeat, laughter at you, with you, relief.

There are many things I would like to express in French, but I search for the words and fumble even when I thought I’d found them. Likewise, there is a story I badly wish to tell, but I search for the structure and the inside of my brain looks like the view out our window on the third day of this snowstorm–white as the wall of sky above the woodshed (which I recently referred to in earnest as the “treebox”), blank and frantic, cold and too bright to even make out the furious swirls of glittering snow.