Alighting at the Gare du Midi, stepping out into the unusually warm Belgian spring sun, the memories came cascading. They tumbled to the present from my own youth, as I stood next to the burgeoning adolescent who is my travel partner and my pride. Images of myself at her age commingled with reminiscences about my many days and nights in Brussels and the countryside: the childish boredom, the epic meals, the poetic excesses, the first time that I stood with my infant child in the Grand Place. It was surreal to have my offspring now stand as an almost equal at my side.
Six years had passed since our last pilgrimage to the homeland; a lifetime we have lived in that short span. This was the first trip that I was in sole charge of our itineraries, happiness, and fortunes and I harbored some latent anxiety, not least of all because my use of French has dwindled to the occasional curse word. Her mother is a savant with languages, but I was not so blessed with that skill, nor had I been attentive to the maintenance of my meager linguistic levels.
And yet, as I greeted our driver, as I checked into the hotel, as we walked with my cousin, as we went for apero with my uncle, as we ate frites and drank beer, as we walked the streets at night, the throughline to my Grandma’s French lessons was reconnected instantly, bewilderingly, magically. An elegant and gentle lady with a killer sense of style and a thick French accent that she would not shake sixty years after emigration, Grandma’s sole insistence was that I learn the French that was my patrimony. And so, she taught me informally when I was young, my reluctance and annoyance eventually giving way to gratitude when I discovered the advantage that I had over my peers as I entered my formal French education.
Bolstered and energized by a rampant Francophilia and passionate high school French teachers, my command of the language soon increased to a proto-fluency. Trips abroad, especially in a student exchange in my junior year of high school, provided the immersion and imagination necessary to speak with comfort, if not total precision. I was daring and stupid enough to skip introductory French in college and jump straight into literature, a bold choice that humbled my self-impression, surrounded as I was by the genius and the fluent.
The saving grace with which my Grandma bestowed me was an early exposure to the accent, that beguiling, almost comically condescending tone that immediately conjures images of glamour and cigarette smoke. My grammar was never stellar, my vocabulary relatively limited, but I could draw out the syllables with a sufficient ennui to pass for, if not a true Continental, then at least an enlightened American. A smile and a deftly authentic accent worked on waiters and girls and that was enough for me.
Now, as Violet and I visited with our extended family, including at a twenty-person, five-hour dinner, the same immersive instinct was restored, the same primeval linguistic connection covered my sins of conjugation, as I conversed freely with my kin in French. In those moments, as her spirit visited with those that had loved her the most, in the place that she held the most dear, Grandma was more alive than ever. From her I had inherited a most cherished gift, one that I am motivated to no longer take for granted: the ability to feel at home in a place in which you were not born.
Not only am I graced with that legacy, but I can also continue the lineage, as I encourage Violet and her cohort to stick with their Spanish studies and the tremendous boon that they realize by studying with those who speak Spanish natively. Our community’s dual nature has many drawbacks, but the ability of our constituencies to help each other linguistically is a benefit for which we should be thankful.