A strange woman who I did not previously know granted me permission to live in her home and eat breakfast and dinner with her for a month. Though she will be unable to read it (foiled by the language barrier once again), this thank you note is to her.
It’s been weird, mère d’accueil. It really has. I am genuinely not sure if our differences were cultural or personal. Since I prepared for cultural differences, and I was wholly unprepared for you, I’m going to assume that your quirks were just your special, particular brand and not those of French people in general.
Not that our differences ever resulted in actual tension, beyond me complaining on occasion to my mom on the phone at fifty cents per minute.
The month started off on a high note, or rather a very polite note. I remember the first thing I said to you in French: “Je suis désolée, mais je suis timide.” (I’m sorry, but I’m shy.) Why that seemed like the right introduction to make, I don’t know. It should’ve been, I’m sorry, I don’t know enough adjectives to be able to aptly describe myself in French.
Nevertheless, you replied epically: “Pas avec moi!” (Not with me!) We truly bonded amidst the ensuing laughter. It was raining that afternoon, I remember. It rained every single day after as well.
However, as what tends to happen with anyone you live with, the emotional significance and intimacy of our moment of bonding soon faded into nothing.
First of all, I was required to constantly wear a pair of slippers, which you so graciously provided. Any time I was barefoot, or wore socks, around the apartment, you said, “tes chaussures, merci beaucoup,” and unnecessarily sternly, considering I had no idea why any other footwear was forbidden around the apartment, and I wasn’t barefoot or socked to sabotage the intentions of these mysterious rules.
I ate everything that was put on my plate. I force-fed myself smoked salmon, merely because that was what you offered me. I’m not afraid to tell you now, mère d’accueil. I freaking hate smoked salmon.
Oh, and the shower—I have never met anyone more particular about what goes on in their shower while others are using it. It was a daily struggle to determine the shower schedule. You’re too loud to take a shower after nine, if after dinner go quickly!; you take too long, cut the water when shampooing!; they turned off the water in the whole building, but I’m not going to tell you until you’re already in there and both the water and the power go off, making the windowless salle de bain in which you were mid-shower pitch black!
But the greatest challenge was the house key. Yes, it took me a little over a week to be able to let myself in and out of the apartment. I don’t know whose fault that one is. Even you must admit that it is a complicated procedure: insert the key, lift up the handle, turn once to the right, three times to the left, hear a “click,” turn it again to the right, put down the handle, all the way, remove the key, and voilà. Oh, and you have to do the opposite to lock the door, as well (I definitely left the apartment open by accident once for a full day).
The first few nights you were gentle and tolerant about the key. You could hear me clanking and clicking and moving the handle around from the inside of the apartment. I am grateful not only that you happened to be at the apartment at those dire times of need, but also that you opened the door for me. I would’ve been stuck in the hallway for eternity, I’m fairly certain.
But there was one night that we have not discussed since it happened. As I am leaving tomorrow, it is time we clear the air on a specific Key Crisis.
I was returning home a little bit late that night. I was out with friends, we were enjoying each other’s company and the night; besides, I didn’t have a curfew. I’m an adult. An adult who just cannot figure out an ancient key and lock system at one in the morning, who accidentally wakes up an older, irritable French lady, a French lady who keeps several auxiliary pairs of slippers for any guests who visit her.
I was, of course, extremely apologetic (in French, and in English; I tend to revert back to English when I’m nervous). I would’ve slept in the hallway that night. I didn’t want to wake you. But wake you I did. You were only a little agitated, but your agitation is not what bothered me about this particular instance. Rather, it was the fact that you were not wearing pants.
Okay, I get it, you were sleeping. It was late. But you weren’t just not wearing pants. You weren’t wearing anything below the waist.
You were modest at first, but don’t think I didn’t notice that you were stretching and holding your white t-shirt over your literal crotch. I noticed. I would’ve left it at that if we had just immediately parted ways for the night with a polite though tense “bonne nuit.” But you insisted on showing me, possibly for the sixth time, how to work the key. This required you to turn around.
This required you to turn around.
I saw your pale elderly French woman butt.
And I had to keep it there, in my personal bubble, in my line of sight, right before me, until you finished explaining the key.
And then I went back to my room, sat on my bed, and wondered why I just can’t have one normal day. Just one normal day that a normal twenty-year old on her normal study abroad would experience. But, no. I had to see your butt.
I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. And only in the first week, too. Mère d’accueil, that’s just uncool. The last week, maybe; the last night, even more acceptable. Then, I would’ve been going home with a fresh, funny experience and a good story to tell my parents when they picked me up at the airport, without the horror of seeing you, the near-stranger whose butt I had seen up close, every day and night for the next three weeks.
Well, it’s out there now. I’ve said it. I’ve officially said everything that I’ve been thinking when that memory pops into my brain like a terrifying, French Jack-in-the-Box.
But this is a thank you note, and I do have a lot to thank you for. Thank you for cooking for me, even if I didn’t particularly enjoy it. Thank you for tidying up my room that one day, when you lined up all of my shoes so sweetly. Thank you for not waking me up that one morning, even though I was missing class (we both knew I needed it). Thank you for dealing with me, because I’m not exactly the best roommate either. And mostly, thank you for being patient when I said the word wrong, or didn’t know the vocabulary. I was never afraid to go out on a French limb with you, and that lack of inhibition whenever I came back to your apartment truly helped me improve.