Climbing the cool dark stairs up from the basement lair to shower before school. Walking to catch the city bus in the dark, the streets sleek with winter rain. Glints of sunshine as my host sister and I meet up with her school friends. The morning a blur of darkness and words I struggle to understand.
Wherever I am in the winter, on dark mornings I’m transported back to a city in southern France.
Many years after those dim school days in Marseille, I descend onto the train station platform in Trenton, New Jersey, as I’ve done hundreds of times before. But this time there’s a man smoking a cigarette by the ticket machines and then I am somewhere else – the schoolyard of my lycéein Marseille, surrounded by skinny teenaged boys and tiny teenaged girls, all in chic dark coats. Chic because of their plain style, their blackness, and chic, too, just because they are French. My new bright yellow anorak and tan knock-off Birkenstock clogs – the rage in my home in Illinois, and purchased new for this trip – are strange, bulky, and out of place. Tespantoufles, someone calls my clogs. Your slippers.
Remembering is a kind of time travel, a way to be in two times at once, here in the bright legible present and back there in the murky past. Was it murky when we were first there, or has time borne down upon it, more fog than veil, concealing more than it can reveal?
From my months in Marseille I remember the early-morning preparation for school, those whiffs of smoke, and the sound of Céline Dion singing, the cool chipped wooden tiles on the floor of my host mother’s living room, as if I sprawled upon them every day for hours, repeating, encore et encore, the same Céline Dion songs over and over until not only the words inhabited my mind, but also each chord and key change. Maybe they, and I, did.
If I equated Céline Dion with French language learning, it’s because I grew up in a part of Illinois where there weren’t a lot of choices in French music and at a time when we hadn’t quite gotten the Internet at home. She was what I had, and I had a lot of her, songs memorized by repetition, first in my parents’ basement, then in my host mother’s living room, the liner notes gripped in one hand, my pocket French/English dictionary open in front of me.
Light glints off many of these memories, the moments when I was learning that I might not always want to be a Midwestern American girl who wore what looked like slippers to school. The salty scent of the Mediterranean on Sunday mornings, the harsh summer sunlight of Provence grazing my headache-prone forehead and passing me by, the bright blossoms of a mimosa tree. The musical accent of one French teacher, her voice like a stream tripping over stones grown smooth, the water as fast and course as it has been for millennia. They are snatches of time, these second chances I’ve tucked away to revisit whenever I smell cigarettes or sea breeze, and they are fleeting.
Maybe these memories are beyond me because from the time I was thirteen until I was almost thirty I studied or spoke French almost every day. This daily repetition came thanks to the routine of American school systems, that study abroad program in Marseille and another later in Toulouse, a minor in French in college, and a master’s thesis in French history. For years, I marked time by how long I’d been studying French – though it was only after I’d arrived in Marseille as a high school student that I realized it was one thing to practice speaking French for forty minutes every day and yet another to employ it all day for months on end. Those mornings in Marseille, the French itself was so thick I couldn’t see through it. Nevertheless, one day I could see it, I could understand both French and France, and the language lay across my brain like a protective cover. Then, time passed, more veil than fog, and for four years I neither spoke in French nor spoke of France.
Somewhere in the middle of those Frenchless years, I had tattooed on my ankle a French abbreviation, one I learned quickly while copying a classmates’s notes in an early morning philosophy class in Marseille, the professor a gangly man who spit when he spoke and who never spoke more slowly because an American girl was seated in the front row, frantically trying both to listen and to copy the notes of a girl who’d agreed to ensure I got where I needed to go each day. I copied her lower case m with a circumflex over it, the shorthand for même, for “even” or the “same,” part of a common phrase, quandmême, which when uttered seriously means “nevertheless,” and when uttered with a characteristically southern French air of exasperation, means “what the hell do you think you’re doing?” The m with the circumflex made it onto my ankle, pinning me to a past where I both persevered and never had any idea what I was doing.
Another thing I don’t remember: why I decided, after some interval of time as an adult, to slide a Céline Dion CD into the player of my car and try to lift the veil. After I’d returned from Marseille as a high school student I still listened to Céline Dion religiously, but I’d learned that my favorite songs were written by Jean-Jacques Goldman, whose wife was from the quartier in Marseille where I’d lived. The CD I put on in my car was the same one I’d played on repeat in my host mother’s living room, and I might have been driving down Route 1 in suburban New Jersey but my mind was in Marseille again. There were words I’d forgotten, chords that quivered in my hippocampus, the place in the brain where memories form.
I’d gone back to France in college and haggled with a vendor in an open aired market in Paris. I was pleased but not surprised when he asked if I was from Québec. I’d picked up the Marseillais “accent qui chante,” the singing accent, by speaking French in Marseille, but I’d picked up the ear for French by singing along with a Québecoise.
These days my accent is dark around the edges, dusty from disuse, though I’m trying to bring out into the light. Recently I took a writing test for placement in a French class in the Alliance Française. I found myself sounding words out as best as I could, transcribing words I still knew how to speak but no longer knew how to write. The words I’d never forgotten? The ones I’d heard encore et encore in Céline Dion’s songs. And, out of nowhere or somewhere very far away, bousculer, “to bang into,” a word I had to look up in my pocket dictionary to rediscover how to spell it.
Later, when the Alliance Française director called to administer the oral placement exam for the class, I blanched. What was I doing? “I’ve lost all my French,” I said, in French, to the francophone on the telephone.
“No, not all,” she said, and I heard or remembered her unspoken quand même.
BIO: Hillary Moses Mohaupt is a writer, wanderer, social media editor, and pie-baker. Her work has appeared in Brevity, Barrelhouse, Lady Science, and elsewhere.
Photo: Marseille Harbor