This is my submission to the next Language/Place blog carnival, to be hosted by Steve Wing. If it's included I'll put a link here. The theme is "Translation." The story is a recounting of a day in the spring, and is an excerpt from the long manuscript about Montreal and Iceland that I'm currently working on.
Over the weekend, I worked with one of our upstairs neighbors to prune the four Camperdown elms that grow in the garden along the side of our building. Francine was born and raised in Montreal and then married a Lebanese man who had come here to escape the civil war. They’re both a bit older than we are, with two grown children and a grandchild. She speaks some English, but unlike many Quebecois who immediately switch to English — which can either be out of politeness, or out of a desire to show how well they handle the language — when I am with her she only speaks French, and expects me to as well. As with some other francophones, I’ve never been entirely sure if it’s how she’s comfortable, or a deliberate way of indicating a political opinion that French is the language I should be speaking since we are here in Quebec. As a result I’ve always felt tentative and apologetic with her, slightly ashamed that I’m not becoming fluent faster, and have sometimes avoided longer encounters. But Francine is also one of my language touchstones; each year, as we work on the garden — a job I had volunteered for at the annual meeting of the condominium co-proprietaires, under the illusion that here my French deficiencies wouldn’t matter too much — it gets a little easier, a fact that she notices too.
She had said, on the telephone, that there were some shrubs that she wanted to discuss removing and replacing, so after collecting me at my apartment, we went outside and she showed me the ones in question. The hydrangeas, she said, never bloomed well, and the junipers were overgrown; what did I think? We pulled the branches apart to see how big the trunks were; I asked about the soil –il y a beaucoup de sable, she said – lots of sand – and learned the word for clay – argile. She said the soil was easy to dig, but that we had to get all the roots, or the hydrangea would becoming up everywhere.
Oui, I said, nous avons eu un grand hydrangea au Vermont…les hydrangeas sont très difficiles d’éradiquer.
Eradiquer! she exclaimed, and gave me a teasing half smile. Deux étoiles!
I looked at her, startled, and then we both laughed. After that things went more easily. I asked what the difference was, in French, between hydrangea and hortensia: the latter, she explained, is the name for the decorative blue and pink ones, but in Quebec this kind — she prodded the sprawling shrub near her feet with her secateurs — c’est un hydrangea. We decided to dig up the shrubs later on, when we had gotten the right kind of tools – there was no pointed shovel in the basement – and to try to enlist the aid of my husband if not hers, after discovering that they both had bad backs. Les maris! we cried. Husbands!
Then we began with the pruning – she had never asked me to help with this before, so I listened carefully and asked questions about how she wanted it done – but as we clipped the small branches that had died over the winter, and lopped off larger ones with the secateurs, we also began, tentatively at first, to exchange more information about our lives. She wanted to know what sort of work my husband and I did, and where our studio was. I knew that she painted, so I asked her if she was working on her artwork, and in what medium – watercolors, she said — and what style –a combination of figurative and abstract. What medium did I work in, she wondered, and what type of subject? Landscape, I answered, j’ai oublié le mot...Le paysage, she supplied. Had I had exhibitions in the United States? What was I doing now? She asked about our renovations, which everyone in the building knew about, were they done? what had caused the problem? And we talked, of course, about gardening; I had told her before that we had had a big garden in Vermont, and she asked if we grew vegetables; I said yes, we had, but I was pretty much through with that, although I had thought of trying some tomatoes on the roof, to which she shrugged and said the problem was so much wind up there, sur le toit, and I agreed, now that we could buy such beautiful produce in the city, what was the point? and we talked about the Middle Eastern market where I knew we both shopped, and its newly opened branch on the South Shore — comme il est grand! et merveilleux!
It was around then, as we began work on the third tree, that she switched from vous to tu. I noticed immediately, but said nothing, even though my heart registered its surprise with a silent little flip. A few sentences later, I answered back with tu.
I asked if she had gone to Beirut this past winter, as they often do, but she said no, they had gone to southern Spain for two months, and that it had been beautiful – ciel bleu et clair chaque jour, chaque jour, incroyable! She explained that her husband’s family was very close and talked constantly, but she herself spoke no Arabic so it was very hard for her, très isolée, and therefore she didn’t enjoy being in Lebanon; sometimes her husband went alone. I told her my sister-in-law was living in Beirut now and loving it, doing a lot of hiking in the mountains, and she stood up, her face glowed with a sudden memory, and said one of the most beautiful places she had ever been were some caverns near Beirut, in the mountains, the anti-Lebanons. It was like something you’d see in in a Disney film, she said, so unreal, but you are there, you are in the film yourself!
Before, I’d thought she was possessive of the trees and the garden, but as we worked and I saw how carefully she pruned, how she stood back now and then to check the progress, hands on her hips, the way she touched a limp rhododendron stem that had been hurt by falling snow, or sighed whenever she had to cut a large dead branch, I realized it was simply the love that most gardeners have for the plants they tend over many years. And for most of those years, she had done it all by herself.
We finished for the day and gathered our tools, and Francine promised to stop by later on when she had called her son about borrowing a shovel. I was in the kitchen when I heard her knock on our door, and opened it to see her grinning like a smug cat. J’ai trouvé un pelle, she announced, and then paused for dramatic effect: et une hache! She mimicked lifting an axe and bringing it down on some hapless victim: pour les racines! she added. I burst into laughter, which caused J. to leave his desk and come down the hall. What are you two laughing about? he asked. Francine has a shovel and an axe, I said. An axe? he repeated? Oui, we both said. Pour les racines – the roots!
Ok, he said, looking from one face to the other. Whatever you say!
There’s to be rain this week, Francine said, and I nodded, I had seen the méteo; Which day shall we meet, then? We agreed on Wednesday, at nine a.m.
A mercredi! I said.
A mercredi! she replied, and pulled open the door to the stairwell, smiling at me.