It was already hot as we set off from our gite in Verdun-sur-Garonne, in the south of France. Paul was driving, with Laurel sitting next to him. As the navigator, Laurel was constantly looking down at the map spread out on her lap. Each roundabout brought on a few anxious seconds of, “Okay, let’s see, do we turn here? No not yet, it’s the next one.” There seemed to be a lot of roundabouts, and as we approached each one I wished, mostly for Laurel’s sake, that we’d paid the extra euros for a rental car with GPS.
I lounged in the backseat, behind all the navigating going on up front. I had the luxury of doing absolutely nothing but relaxing and looking out the windows and taking in the views. I was quiet as I listened to their back and forth marriage dance, and remembered my own from long ago. I was both happy that I didn’t know it anymore and a little sad that I didn’t know it anymore.
I stared out the windows as we passed meadows and pasturelands, and fields of tired sunflowers, their faces now drooping in the sun. I studied the leafy forests, with their narrow trunks lined up in symmetrical rows. As the morning moved on, the landscape slowly gave way to grapevines and vineyards as we made our way to Château de Montaigne, home of philosopher and essayist, Michel de Montaigne.
At some point, as we were winding our way along the back-roads through gently rolling hills, we realized we were lost and should probably ask for help. The same thing had happened a couple of days ago, when we were on our way to Albi to visit the Toulouse-Lautrec museum. On that day Laurel said she would ask directions from a utility worker we had just passed on a small country road. So as Paul and I waited in the car, Laurel grabbed her map and jumped out and approached the man.
When she got back she described him as having dreadlocks and a sharp piercing right below his lip. She said that when she asked him if he spoke English, “Parlez-vous anglais, Monsieur?” he replied, “A leetle.” He then showed her on the map how to get back to the main road. She said he was really friendly and seemed to enjoy practicing his English. Thinking back on it now, I’d say Laurel enjoyed the exchange as much as he did, and that if our rental car did have GPS, human interactions like this one would never happen.
I smiled as I thought of Laurel, and was impressed with her willingness to strike up conversations with strangers, in a language she barely knew. She seemed to like it, and maybe the other party did, too.
I thought about my own limited foreign vocabulary and my reluctance to use it. So far all I’d managed were a few basic phrases, certainly not extended conversations like Laurel. I was watching her, though. She always started with “Bonjour” and then politely asked the other party if they spoke English. Most of the time the answer would be a shy smile, a little shrug of the shoulders, and “un peu.”
That’s when both parties tentatively began their conversation, which consisted of a little English, a little French, and a lot of body language. Mutual smiling, confusion, nodding, gesturing, and understanding looks made for a successful connection.
Though I couldn’t know it then, these observations would prove useful to me in a few days, after we’d left our gite and flew to Paris and I found myself face-to-face with a thief.
But this day, in the peaceful French countryside, was for carefree adventures and gentle discoveries.