When in French

When in French by Lauren Collins

Book: When in French by Lauren Collins Read Free Book Online
Authors: Lauren Collins
Good Friday, picked up a rental car at the airport, and drove into the city for lunch. Olivier showed me the hospital where he was born; the apartment where he had lived during cram school; the bars where he and his friends had hung out as students; the crack-of-dawn fish market where, after the bars, they had once bought a whole octopus to shove into the mailbox of a classmate who’d gone home early. That afternoon we followed the right bank of the Gironde estuary east to the vineyards—in the fall, Olivier said, surfers got into the river, paddled to the middle, and rode a waist-high tidal wave called the
mascaret
.
    In Saint-Émilion, we stopped at the first vineyard we saw.A sprightly man with a crooked smile greeted us at the end of the drive. Introducing himself as the estate’s proprietor, he led us into a musty
cave
.
    â€œI inherited the vineyard from my father, who inherited it from his father,” he told us, pouring some wine. “But my true passion is magic.”
    We tasted the wine. It was good, for the product of a man who would rather be locking people in a box and sawing them in half.
    â€œFortunately I married the perfect woman,” he said. He gestured out the window toward a hunched-over figure in the fields.
    â€œThat’s my wife,” he said, beaming. “She’s a certified oenologist.”
    Before leaving, we bought a few bottles to take to Olivier’s parents. I thought about the reluctant vigneron’s fantastically sensible marriage, how he had retrofitted his life with someone whose skills exactly matched his specifications. As he was making change, he pulled one of the minor Euro coins out of my ear.
    At last: time to meet Les Fockers. I fidgeted all the way to Andernos-les-Bains, the village where Violeta and Teddy lived. Olivier had assured me that they were adorable (even though the words are identical, the French version seemed more genuinely affectionate, free of the patronizing edge of its English counterpart, and somehow less gendered: I couldn’t imagine an American male saying “adorable,” a habit I thus found adorable itself). Still I was nervous, the usual anxieties a person has about whether or not her boyfriend’s family will like her overlaid with uncertainty as to whether, in the fog of language, they’d even be able to make out the right person to like or not.
    I’d never been a francophile, much less a francophone. If I’d had to free-associate about the French, I might have said, unimaginatively: cheese, scarves, rude. Before I met Olivier, my most intensive exposure to the language had occurred during ten days I’d spent camping in the Sahara, on assignment with an American photographer and his crew. The Algerians—half a dozen young men who spoke Tamasheq, Arabic, and French—had been superb company, despite the language barrier. But they simply had not been able to figure out what I, an unaccompanied woman, was doing there in the middle of the desert. Neither of the two words I knew in French,
oui
and
non
, had seemed exactly the right answer to their repeated enquiries as to whether I was a virgin.
    We parked on the street outside Violeta and Teddy’s house, a bungalow on a quiet boulevard. Before Olivier even pulled the keys out of the ignition, they’d come running out to greet us. Violeta, in a platinum-blond side ponytail and purple heels, covered us both in kisses. Her tangerine-colored lipstick left imprints all over my cheeks, like the franking on an international package.
    Teddy, seventy-eight and immaculate, insisted on carrying our luggage. We passed through the front yard. There was a hammock, a patio covered with artificial turf, hummingbird feeders, hibiscuses. Inside the house, ruby-colored beads dangled from a chandelier. A Venetian mask hung near a tasseled lampshade. The entryway was dominated by an antique bureau, covered in lace and porcelain figurines and incense

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