Heavy with tender homesickness, I sit in a restaurant in a distant land once occupied by France, one where I’d expect to hear the French we learn in school.
At the dinner table to my left, I hear two couples speaking the French I knew as a kid, the French of my grandparents, great aunts and uncles, the ones who held me, rocked me and cradled me safe. My people spoke Quebecois with its nasal tones and trimmed endings. My past now mingling with this present moment, I awaken from my nostalgia, for these two couples speak Quebecois. Just like my Uncle “Petit,” so called because he was short, their eyes sparkle. A spark ignites in me, too, boosting me out of the longing for Maine. My ears lift. My right hand moves to my heart. Ahhhh.
I don’t understand these four strangers any more than I understood my grown-up relatives who often whispered in their first language to keep secret their adult tête-à-têtes.
These two couples clip along with hands flying as did my grandfathers. Vibrant just like my Pépères, these friends smile, laugh, talk over each other. I don’t know their names but my mind jumps alive now so I imagine their names like those in my family, names like Lucien, Pierre, Bernadette, Victorine.
My breath quickens. I push up from my chair. I’ll introduce myself, probably in English. I clap and gush to my dinner mates, “You have no idea how happy that sound makes me, brings back such amazing slices of memory, and makes my day. In this foreign land, on this travel adventure, this human connection makes my trip. I hear my ancestors. Here I go to meet them.”
I spring to their table and say, “Excuse me. Do you come from French-speaking Canada? I can hear you. You so remind me of my relatives who came from Caraquet, New Brunswick and St Malo, Quebec.”
In an English that twangs like my Aunt Albertine’s, they say they are from Montreal and Quebec city. I tell them I have visited both. Their eyes widen. I say I live in Maine. They’ve seen Ogunquit, Kennebunkport and Old Orchard Beach. I chat with my whole body now. I say my husband comes from Kennebunkport. They ask if I speak French. I say, “a little. I learned it in school. I’ve forgotten a lot.”
Right now, in a country half-way around the globe, with a twelve hour time difference from where I live and love, my heart knows a piece of home, feels love right here. When I leave them, I say, “Bonne soirée.”
They point to me and exclaim, “ohh, ahh, you DO speak French!”
They now start the lightning-fast French I haven’t heard for fifty years, with hands waving and fingers wigwagging. Their native tongue links me to my history. I may never see them again, but for a moment, in a strange land, they offer the language of home. And I think maybe home is not geography; rather home is an interior feeling or a tapping into ancient ancestral joy. Maybe we don’t so much live in a home as home lives in us, and we can welcome ourselves home wherever we are, if we remember home resides within.