Friday, December 01, 2006

Teaching Nora…

Summer holidays arrived soon after and we went to France for a few weeks. I was feeling quite tired and queasy now, because I was three months pregnant. I particularly wanted to see Gaelle, who was also pregnant with her fourth child and had the same due date as me. There would be a new person visiting staying with Jacques parents too. Jacques younger brother, Jean, had worked in Kosovo helping install water systems. He had fallen in love with a young Kosovan English translator, Nora. This summer Nora was coming to visit the family.

Nora was shy and rather stunned to meet the French family she had heard so much about. Like me she was reserved, unable to follow the fast-paced linguistic exchanges and uncomfortable with all the kissing and formalities at the dinner table. I felt for her immediately and we shared our impressions of France. Nora’s first language was Albanian, and she spoke excellent English, which was the language we used to talk to each other. To help her I gave her a brief run through of what was important (help clear the table, ask how mother-in-law makes certain dishes, leave them to sleep after lunch etc…) Even though my parent-in-laws both spoke good English, and my sister-in-law is an English teacher in school, the language in Pouilloux was strictly French. I had become so used to it I had forgotten what it was like in the beginning when I couldn’t understand much. Although I appreciated my ‘immersion’ in French and the dramatic improvement it had made to my colloquial French I felt odd talking French to Nora. Her French was so limited, and we couldn’t really talk. Nora had also been practically abandoned by Jean, who had gone back to his job in French Guyane after a brief holiday in France. Nora didn’t have a proper visa yet, and this was her first trip to France. She was supposed to join Jean in a few weeks but had no idea how to sort out the paperwork in a country where bureaucracy is a nightmare. Nora was culture-shocked, lost without her boyfriend and away from her close family. I wanted to get to know her better. I liked her a lot and decided that I would speak English to her anyway. This worked in private, when we were out for a walk or when the family took a siesta after lunch. But I was frowned at around the dinner table and comments were made strongly about how Nora must learn French and how I was impeding her progress.

The reasons Nora must learn French were:

a) Jean did not (and would not) speak Albanian. The romance had started in English but Jean wanted them to communicate in French if they were to have a long-term relationship.
b) Jean seemed serious and wanted to marry her, but she would have to prove her commitment to both him and his country by learning and speaking French or she would not get a French passport.
c) The family didn’t want me and Nora whispering in ‘our’ language together and possible plotting against the others or talking about them.

I guess I hadn’t appreciated the difference of having a husband who spoke my language too, and being European I didn’t have to worry about visas or passports either. Still I had never planned to go against the family, and I was hurt that I couldn’t talk more to Nora. I was sure that she needed someone to confide in and if I spoke French to her that would cut off the only link she had. But I understood their logic, even though I didn’t agree with the reasons, and left them to it. I was asked to keep out of Nora’s language training anyway due to my ‘English’ accent and bad pronunciation, and my mother-in-law took over, handing Nora a notebook and asking her to write down objects around her. ‘Le TORCHON!’ she would cry waving the tea-towel in her hand or ‘La FORCHETTE et le COUTEAU!” while she set the table. Jacques came to her rescue a few times, talking Nora through visa problems and giving Nora some cooking lessons in French, which helped her feel useful and prove that she could cook. I felt like she was being put through a series of tests to become ‘Jean’s wife’. Did I have the same tests? Probably better not to think about it….

I left Marc and Nina with their grandparents for two weeks while I returned to England to work on the OPOL book. Nora was an angel with my children, talking to them and helping to look after them. She was a lifeline for Nina, who was still not speaking French much. Nora was there to talk a few words of comforting English. When I flew back at the end of August to pick up the kids Nora was leaving the same day. She had finally got her visa to go to Guyane. As we dropped her off at the train station we hugged goodbye. Nora said thank-you for everything and that I had been like a sister to her, which I took as a great compliment. I wished her lots of luck with her French and hoped she would come back to France soon as my new sister-in-law……

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