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Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2007 04:38 pm

Lost in translation

Surviving this Christmas turned out to be miraculous

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Untitled Document The Christmas of 1985, I was 19 and living in Paris, where I worked as a fille au pair for Monsieur and Madame Roth and their two young daughters. I was homesick and sick in general, subsisting on a diet of Gitanes, café express, and Monoprix vin de table. The Roths, I suspect, were sick of my wasted-waif routine, and who could blame them? My predecessor was the Algerian Mary Poppins. I burned soup, sobbed uncontrollably, and slapped the children. Still, they couldn’t very well leave me toute seule on Christmas Day with a gas oven and an unattended liquor cabinet, so they graciously invited me to M. Roth’s parents’ country home, a quaint stone cottage about 40 minutes outside Paris.
The elder Roths were Huguenots, French Protestants, which was apparently a very big deal. Before dinner, the pink-faced patriarch launched into a passionate monologue about the persecution endured by his ancestors, who, I guessed, were kind of like the Jews of Gaul. I couldn’t figure out whether this lengthy speech was a family tradition or a quickie tutorial for the dumb American’s benefit. In any case, the message got lost in translation. Although I’d been living in France for a few months by that point and could read the language pretty well, my listening-comprehension skills were sorely deficient. When the topic concerned something other than naps or snacks or missing socks, I had to make a decision: Either stand there slack-jawed and wait for some kindly soul to dumb things down for me or fake my way through the conversation with a few strategically placed “Ah, bon?”s and “Vraiment”s. The nicer the people were, the worse I felt about desecrating their language. M. Roth’s parents seemed very nice, despite their eccentric sectarian customs, and I didn’t want to abuse their hospitality. All I wanted to do was turn invisible and stuff my face. I was always starving in those days, and I harbored an irrational longing for a traditional Christmas dinner with all the fixings. Mashed potatoes and gravy, roast turkey or maybe baked ham, green beans boiled with bacon, sweet potatoes with miniature marshmallows, pecan pie — that’s what they’d be eating back home at my Grandma Ruby’s house. I knew that the Christmas food in France would be somewhat different; I just assumed that it would be a more sophisticated version of the usual fare.
As with so many other things, I guessed wrong. After an agonizing hour or two of navigating the chitchat minefield (Should I use the passé composé or the imparfait? Is “wineglass” masculine or feminine?), I was relieved to sit down at the Roths’ beautiful oak table. Finally I could occupy my mouth with something it was actually good at! Someone filled my glass with Champagne, and I obediently drained it. It was promptly replenished, and I did the same thing. I would have preferred water, actually, but it seemed impolite to reject what was, for all I knew, a blessed sacrament of the Huguenot Christmas, so I kept drinking, and they kept pouring. At any rate, drinking Champagne was easier than speaking French, especially now that my face was pleasantly numb. I was at that stage of drunkenness in which all is for the better in the best of all possible worlds. Language barrier be damned! I suddenly understood everything, and everything was good.
If I had been anything less than irrevocably soused, I might have been able to avert the disaster that was headed my way in the form of a huge tray of oysters on the half shell. As the Roth clan oohed and aahed over the decadent first course, I should have been figuring out a polite way to decline something that I knew, without even tasting, would surely make me hurl (What’s the word for ‘allergic’? Would they believe me if I said I was Jewish?). Instead, I plucked one of the trembling mollusks off the platter and willed myself to force it down. The briny, viscous sensation was disturbingly familiar, like swallowing phlegm. I smiled gamely at my hosts, who were watching me with hopeful expressions, and I slurred the requisite compliments. They seemed so pleased, so heartbreakingly happy, that I couldn’t bear to turn down the next one. Or the next. I grimly slurped down a succession of the hideous huîtres, hoping against hope that each one would be my last. No such luck. By this point I’d downed so many that everyone assumed that I loved them, and all protestations to the contrary were taken as the feeble politesse of the foreign charity case. The rest of the evening was a blur. Somehow I resisted the urge to vomit at the table, although I did make several surreptitious trips to the bathroom after dinner, where I regurgitated the equivalent of two months’ salary. I don’t remember the ride home, how I managed not to ruin the pristine leather upholstery of M. Roth’s Peugeot, how I got into bed and repeatedly found my way out again when I had to throw up for the umpteenth time. It must have been a Christmas miracle.

René Spencer Saller writes about music for Illinois Times.
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