When my husband and I first discovered our lovely little ville, Collioure, I had command of very few words in French. This place was the center of anchovy production for all of France long ago, favorite of the Fauves, those modern artists who loved to paint the colors of Collioure, and it is fortunately protected by the Batiment de France for all time. I knew no one, and plunged as a stranger into the French vacance with some trepidation. But I did have a few words.
On the first morning awash with sun and warm sea, I skipped down to our nearby beach and proudly said to the concession owner, Pierre, “Je voudrais louer trois matelos.”
“All for you, madame,” he asked, barely suppressing a guffaw!
“Yes, I said, but you had better make it four,” not wanting to leave out the smallest child.
Little did I realize that I had asked to hire three sailors and added another, just to be sure.
Thus was made my first friend in Collioure, along with his wife and the waiters at the little beach bistro that became our favorite resto. No doubt they laughed over this with friends all summer. Those crazy Americains!
Soon after that I visited a local beauty salon for a facial, and as I was leaving after my heavenly hour, a voice in English with a lovely French accent called out from one of the rooms, “Are you Americaine?” I was taken by the owner to another room in which a golden-haired woman with a cucumber-green masque on her face was introduced as Gigi, now our friend for over thirty six years.
“I love America, I love Americains” she cried. “My husband, a physicist, and I were at Stanford some years ago and I adored my two months there and will never forget those days!” They will never forget her, either, at a Stanford faculty cocktail party in a see-through dress, her wild hair and golden espadrilles.
Thus was born yet another friendship that filled our first months in France with aperos, more friends, and a joie de vivre that made it clear we had chosen the perfect spot to spend our future summers. Perhaps our lives later on…
And in one of those summers, we threw a party not at all in the French manner, but instead, invited the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker along with accumulated French friends we had begun seeing each year in July. At that gathering was an energetic woman who cornered me and began a machine-gun French conversation that, after half an hour, I had to stop. I was exhausted in an attempt to keep up with her topics and news and latest gossip but my poor French simply would not communicate well and I said, “Lillian, I must go rest. I’ve cooked all day for this party and there are 50 people needing more guacamole and more champagne and frankly, I’m about to collapse, so a tout a l’heur!
When we returned to Los Angeles, I booked French lessons. I studied three days a week, three hours a day, and when we returned to Collioure that next summer, I was prepared for Lillian.
Another party was thrown and she appeared, happy to see us (and we, her) and chatting away about her life and what had happened since we met and so on, and voilá! I started chatting back, relishing my new-found language and rattling on at (almost) the same pace and feeling thoroughly puffed up with pride at holding my own, finally.
I said to her in French, “Lillian, you hold a special place in my heart, for it was you who inspired me to take lessons and be able to talk with you and others about so many things even if that first encounter nearly wiped me out. But now, I’ll know what you are saying and can enjoy your company much more so thank you.”
She looked astounded.
“But, Suzanne, why didn’t you tell me that you were having trouble understanding. I speak very good English.”
Now she tells me, I thought. But look at the great gift she gave instead.
Suzanne Dunnaway is the author of No Need To Knead, Handmade ItalianBreads in 90 Minutes (Hyperion); Rome, At Home, The Spirit of la cucina romana in Your Own Kitchen (Broadway Books); No Need to Knead (Metric/American version-Grub Street Publishers, London)