I guess since I posted the pictures from our mountain trip, I should compose the background music. It’s a mixed bag of vulnerable, awkward, rushing emotions, catharsis and isolation and connection. It’s the backbeat of learning a language.
The drive: we left at four in the morning and met at the wine cellar, in the dim light, to transfer bags and to watch the French family smoke cigarettes. The dog sat in the back, looking bewildered and sleepy. I felt bewildered and sleepy too. I had packed my bags the night before. I wore thick grey socks inside my brown leather motorcycle boots, and fingerless knitted gloves. The moon was still up. It was the day after the shortest day of the year, the first day that the sun was coming back…or maybe just the second-darkest night? The air was still and frosty.
I knitted the whole time, the whole drive, in the dark, five and a half hours as the sun gradually came up in the flat grey light, thick grey wool, knitting until my wrists hurt, trying to finish the last scarf for Christmas presents. The right hand needle kept hitting the car door, and the scarf was a lot longer than I meant it to be. Just knitting in a trance as we passed through toll booths and finally the vague blotting-out of the stars on either side of us, combined with the cold air hissing through the vents, let us know we were in the mountains. The radio broke in and out. French DJs, pop music. The oncoming headlights lit the edge of his profile as we drove, first east and then north, into the Alps.
We stopped for coffee and they tried to speak to me, and my tired confused brain murmured something. I understood every third word. I felt like I was watching a movie and everything was happening far away to someone else. I wrapped my hands around the tiny paper cup of espresso.
Gentle kicks in the stomach from the baby. Comforting.
We checked in. We dragged boxes and bags, food and skis and hats and boots and little gold bags for Christmas gifts. We made the bed and drew the curtains and fell into it. We slept with our arms wrapped around each other, too tired to talk. I dreamed about being a pirate.
Some other things happened. I took a swim, outdoors, in a steamed over pool, agonized and shy about being pregnant, wanting the comfort of my thick sweaters to ide behind, but happy to be in the warm water. He took his skiis to be waxed and I hid in the room, afraid to be spoken to, my hair wet, afraid to NOT be spoken to, agonized with the awkardness of it all.
We gave them our presents, a handknitted scarf for each person, deep ruby red for his mother, turquoises and greens for his sister, thick textured grey for his brother. Long lush tassles, each scarf long enough to be wrapped around twice, thickly knit. I felt proud. I got nothing back but that seemed okay. I was happy to have made something by hand. I felt like it said everything I wanted to say but couldn’t, that the time I’d invested in each piece, and the attention, told them how badly I wanted to connect.
I knitted a grey hat the next morning, channeling my fear into obsessive knot tying, smiling as I realized that they had never seen anyone make a hat before. I showed them how to make pom poms. I knitted ear flaps into my hat, and laughed at how much it looked like a samurai helmet.
When they talked about me in the third person, I made eye contact to let them know I understood, answered if I could. I guess it helped, maybe. I heard his mom laugh and say, “She doesn’t understand,” and I looked at her before looking away. I felt sometimes defiant and sometimes like I was choking. I felt trying to speak. I yelled at my husband when he kept answering me in English.
I made Lebanese tabhouli. As I chopped parsley, I could hear them ask him what I was doing. I heard the French word for grass clippings. No one tried to eat any.I was asked why I decided to be a vegetarian and haltingly explained, frustrated that my words were so limited, angry that it was so much MORE than what I could say, angry at how they smiled at the end, knowing that I hadn’t been understood, not at all.
I heard her ask him if the baby was going to be malnourished and if the doctor was “okay” with me following a lifestyle that I’ve practiced for 25 years, and I quaked inside.
I could feel they were reaching out to me sometimes, and I was angry at what felt like my inability to respond the way I wanted, to laugh or tell stories or be warm, or just do anything other than look shyly downward at my hands, unable to make eye contact.
It wasn’t all bad. It wasn’t even all them. I felt freakish and shy, I could feel their unease and their not-knowing-what-to-say-ness, and it made me feel even shyer. I wanted to feel like an equal. I wanted to belong. I went to my room again, to breathe.
We took walks while they skiied, me and his mom, and the little silver wolf. She talked to me. I talked French for two hours. I told her about my mom, about where I grew up. I told her about where I used to live, about the ship. I told her everything I could think of. She understood. It was good. We did another walk the next day.
We got coffee while we waited for the skiiers to come home. I showed her pictures. My hands got cold. The dog tried to crawl on my lap and I realized her paws were cold too.
Every night, I tensed for the inevitable Meat Wars at dinner. I made lasagna. The premade sauce I used was too salty. I felt the blood rush to my face.
We snowshoed, first in a group, then just me and my hsband and his brother. I kept up, even though I could feel the tiredness creeping in, but I was angry and determined to save face. The second day, in the dark, I slid down the last of the hill on my butt, too tired to walk through the snow anymore.
It was mind bendingly beautiful. I made a snowman, and took pictures of me and him, a serious one first, and then one with us crossing our eyes and laughing. I felt so proud to be with him.
The relief of retreating to the bedroom, to watch movies and cuddle and not have to speak, to sit in silence, was like cool sweet water. The room felt safe. Being alone felt safe. Alone, but safe.
Looking at him sleeping made me want to cry with tenderness and awe and love. Over and over again. The same when I watched him skiing, the grace, the effortlessness, me feeling so proud and shy. Standing on my tiptoes to kiss him, careful not to slip on the ice. Jumping balanced on the back of his skis as we rode down te last bit of the hill to the cabin, laughing and yelling in French for him to slow down, and feeling people smiling at us, feeling being in love and how wonderful that is.
The last day, hiking in the mountains with his brother and mother, I spoke a little and understood everything. I left my wallet in his brother’s backpack for safety. I laughed and cheered his mom on when she got tired. We finagled a ride down on the ski lift, fabricating some nonexistent excuse based around my pregnancy, and I laughed as the lift car pitched forward, at the unexpected vertigo, at the relief I felt at being able to laugh in front of them.
The final day, the awkwardness rolled back in like a thick fog. Tired and uncertain, I packed my bags and ran them to the car through the icy parking lot, unsure once again of what to say. I asked for my wallet back, but struggled with the word, “portefeuille”, with the last part, the “eiul” – sound, saying it three and four times, finally drawing a rectangle in the air and frustratedly saying the word for money, “argent”, finally making myself understood and shaking with embarrassment as I watched the recognition dawn on his face, as he unzipped the front pocket of his bag and handed me my wallet.
I bought cheese and bread in the rest stop, since all the premade sandwiches and salads were full of meat, and silently endured the last bit of “rabbit” comments. They all stood in a circle and smoked cigarettes. I stood a little bit away, tired and ready to go home. I read the backs of the roadmaps in silence through the glass of the storefront window.
The frustration and sadness hasn’t lifted yet. It was a beautiful trip, and the moments sleeping in the soft light as the snow fell, cuddling my husband, savoring the aching of my legs from snowshoeing, enjoying the pictures and memories behind my eyelids as I drifted to sleep…swimming outside in the snow through thick steam…being in love and out of my comfort zone, but enveloped in safety and joy and contentedness as he held me close, dreaming about next year and the future…getting kicks, more and more regularly. Letting him feel the kicks for the first time, and almost crying at the look of surprise and wonder and emotion as he snatched his hand back instinctively, looking at me both shocked and laughing, and then kissing me.
And yet the melancholy hangs heavy today. The sound of French in the street makes me feel tired and sad. I walked into the hills today, and the few people I met on the way greeted me, and I could feel my returned “Bonjour” was barely a whisper, ducking my head after a moment of eye contact.
I wonder if I’ll ever feel part of this culture, where the language won’t still surprise and bewilder me.