I know I’m lucky because not everyone has a pilgrimage to make in their life, a trip to help us grow as people. I know the idea has its roots in religion, but for me it was as simple as my trip to Signy de l’Abbaye this past weekend.
I caught an 8:30 a.m. train out of Paris at Gare de l’Est with only a backpack full of some spare clothes for the next day. We passed out of the city, and outside I saw the grey and brown of the Paris buildings melt away into soft greens and a warm, pale blue sky. The French countryside reminds me of home, of the rolling hills of the Midwest littered with the black and brown dots of cows and horses.
Waiting for me on the platform were my grandparents, who came to pick me up for the hour drive into the countryside to the incredibly small village of Signy de l’Abbaye. This is where my great-aunt Francoise lives, and I was coming out here for a family gathering to celebrate her birthday. Among the guests were my second aunts, uncles, and cousins, all of whom are quite a bit older than me since my grandpa is 15 years younger than his sisters. There’s quite a bit of staggering between our generations—the only other person my age was Jean Etienne, who because of technicalities would be considered my second nephew? Even though he’s only a few years younger than me? Even funnier is that his brother is in fact older than me? I’m beginning to think family trees should look a lot more like a big knot of yarn, huh.
In any case, when I arrived at my great-aunt’s home, it was exactly as I remembered it five years earlier—a picturesque two-story farmhouse on the outskirts of the village with a small garden out front and a surrounding fenced-off field. My great-aunt’s home brings this sense of calm as tranquil sounds of encompassing nature float in through opened windows. It’s detached from the constant bustling of city streets like I was used to in Paris. Inside, plates were clinking with silverware and glasses being moved about. Instantly the smell of something delicious (butter) hit my nose and I knew I would not be leaving with an empty stomach.
With many rounds of bisous, I greeted the family already there, and more rounds came with the family arriving after. My grandpa called it a small gathering, but I’m not sure how you could think that about a gathering of seventeen! Although it was certainly smaller than the celebration five years prior when I first came here—back then, I was traveling with my mom, dad, Aunt, uncle, and brother, who all normally live in the States like me. I was going to be a senior in high school, still learning French and in fact making slow progress with it. My cousins were all more than happy to practice their English, but our conversations would lapse into polite silence when ideas were clearly not vaulting the language divide.
It was still a splendid time to meet my extended family five years ago, but I wanted this trip to be different. I’m graduating college with a minor in French and even working an internship completely in French—soon I won’t have any more French tests in my life, and I wanted to know how far I’ve come. That afternoon at lunch I got my test results back with flying colors. I could navigate the flowing rivers of conversation of the dinner table easily. I could even express my own opinions in the discussion, which is not always easy to do when three people speak at once in true French fashion.
Our exclamations and conversations went well into the night, even the nearby countryside sheep would call out in disagreement—I imagine to them, “baaa” is simply their way to say, C’est pas vrai! It was great to hang out with my two cousins who always had another joke to crack igniting a roar of their own laughter, to speak with Jean Etienne about his summer plans to work at a youth camp that sounded a lot like the ones I went to when I was younger (but those kids will get to be by the sea, ugh) and I liked digging through old family photo books to find pictures of my dad and grandpa when they were younger.
I can’t imagine what this would have been like if I hadn’t pursued learning French from middle school to the end of college. It was nine years of textbooks and graded conversations. I couldn’t always see how culture is tied to language or the diaspora it caused me being trapped on the other side of a barrier to my heritage. Often times I wondered why I was doing it; why should I feel I’m missing a native language when I didn’t manage to learn it as a small child?
Well, I think I found my answer this weekend at the dinner table.
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<p>I love writing so much that it has become both my job and my hobby. One of my favorite things to write for lately has been my (very nerdy) hobby of Dungeons and Dragons. I love it because I get to create a story together with my friends. Otherwise, I enjoy creative writing (short radio plays, stand up comedy) and reading.</p>