International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Life Abroad
a long, jet-lagged sleep, I enter my in laws kitchen to discover
the house vacant, except for the maid. She has cleaned their
house for twenty years, and she is as much a part of their home
to me as the small European refrigerator, or the neatly-lined row
of hand towels, each with a clearly-defined purpose Hands,
Dishes, Counter. She cries, Amanda! and gives
me the accustomed two-cheek greeting. I can never remember
her name, which makes this all the more embarrassing. Worse,
I usually encounter her like thisalone and disheveled from
She must wonder
why I look like this. I am not wearing matching pajamas, a robe,
or even slippers. Im in gray sweatpants and a 5K race shirt
from five years ago. My hair is rumpled, and I havent brushed
my teeth yet. The French do not look like this. Ever.
The cleaning lady (Ill call her Maude, for convenience) is wearing
a beautiful black sweater and leather pants. No, shes not
going anywhere special later; this is just how she dresses. At
home, our maid dresses like Im dressed now. Since she weighs
about three hundred pounds, this is probably for the best. Maude,
a grandmother, is fit and looks great in her leather pants.
She always seems so happy to see me, and I have to take this at face
value, since the French are anything but phony. They tell you
what they think, and they dont usually worry about hurting anyones
feelings. Maude and I always chat for a bit in the kitchen, as
I sit down for my late breakfast and try to remain unobtrusive as she
cleans. Though I speak French and am married to a Frenchman, my
first conversations always taste a little strange. By the end
of the visit, it has become automatic, but it is a relief to know that
in these early attempts, Maude will be kind and ignore my foreignness.
She asks me about the flight and the baby, since I am visibly pregnant,
and about my upcoming move to France. She is thrilled that we
are coming. She knows that my husband will be so happy.
We talk about schools and my daughter, who both of us believe will adjust
easily. But you, she shakes her head sadly.
It will be hardest for you. The pity in her eyes is
She is right, of course. I stick out like a sore thumb.
My foreignness goes beyond my inability to dress properly. Im
a bit of a bull in a china shop here. Everything is too small.
All of my movements are too big. I would go on to break an untold
number of appliances, and to have dozens of accidents in parking lots.
In sum, I dont fit in, and this is obvious to the most casual
I know all this, but I put on a happy face (one thing Americans are
good at doing). If I find a job I like
lamely, trailing off a bit. Im seeking a teaching position,
but finding one is not a given. This is more optimism than I really
feel, and shes not convinced. She tells me about a relative
who lives abroad, who is now divorced and remains an expatriate to be
close to her children. I stare at her in horror, and she returns
my gaze levelly. This anecdote was not chosen at random. It wasnt
told maliciously, either. It occurs to me that she is trying to
Later in my visit, I found myself in the kitchen again with her, but
under slightly different circumstances. I had been feeling a little
unwell, dizzy, not an unusual thing during this pregnancy. I know
better than to ignore this, too, since Im a fainter. Ive
been known to swoon at the grocery store, and even once during lunch
at my kitchen tableGone With the Wind-like collapses that send
me crumpling in a heap on the floor and everyone else around me scrambling
for water, air, smelling salts, anything.
This was one of those occasions. I could feel it coming, and I
knew I needed to sit down. I thought that maybe, just maybe, if
I could get a glass of water, it would pass. When I finally made
it to the kitchen, it was too late for the water, and I barely made
it to the nearest chair, the ringing in my ears covering up the sound
of my daughter crying.
It was in such a position that Maude found me. My lips thickly
formed the word in French for water, which she rushed to
get, repeating, Oh, la la!! I knew that the episode
would be over quickly and tried to tell her so, but the words wouldnt
come out. She scooped me up and half-carried me to go lie down.
Then, she tried to call every number she had for my family, trying to
find someone to come take care of me. When I felt a little better,
I sat up to tell her that I would be all right, that she didnt
have to baby-sit me. She admonished me about taking care of myself,
like my mother might have, and told me to get some rest. I nodded
The rest of the family heard the story later with great amusement, since
I clearly appeared to be fine. My father-in-law pointed out helpfully
that since Maude had witnessed it, the entire town would hear about
the pregnant American who fainted at their house. I felt a sudden,
new loyalty to my unlikely savior and said, a little defensively, Well,
Im glad she was there. Of course, of course, everyone
When you are in a foreign country, the self that you knew before in
your native country is gone, replaced by someone who has difficulty
ordering food at a restaurant, someone who unknowingly makes embarrassing
social gaffes. You are diminished. Even if, like me, you
contribute years of your life to the study of a language and its people,
you remain foreign. All of your efforts are wiped away when you
have to repeat your order at the bakery, or when you make a phone call,
only to hear yourself referred to at that English lady.
Worse, finally, you acquiesce, and accept yourself as that English
lady (oh, American, its the same, really).
I havent seen Maude since the fainting incident, but if I do bump
into her at the grocery store, Im sure she would be happy to see
how well Ive adjusted. I have a job, friends, bilingual
children, and Ive learned to navigate the bureaucracy of a country
that has plenty to spare. None of this would stop her from thinking
of me as la pauvre, or that poor girl.
That is OK with me. When someone has picked you up literally
off the floor, they can think what they wish. Fortunately
for me, I continue to meet people like Maude, willing to extend a hand
as I take on this foreign adventure. And if Maude does feel like telling
the entire village about that poor, pregnant American who fainted, the
story is hers for the telling.
© AMANDA CALLENDRIER Feb 2009
acallendrier at hotmail.com
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