Sunday, November 11, 2007

Chez les Rougier

I spent my junior year of college at a US program in Aix-en-Provence. Since it was a requirement that all students live with a host family who spoke French, the college was glad to find Monsieur and Madame Rougier.

And so were we. Frankly, I had heard tales of woe from fellow French majors on their years abroad in Paris. They lived in underheated garret rooms of strict, stingy Parisian widows, who served the same nightly meal of pale broth and stale bread with a tough cut of meat simmered beyond recognition. Old cranks who screamed at breakfast if if the student had tiptoed up the stairs after midnight. Constantly criticized their French, their clothes, and their manners. A dying breed, straight out of the Old World of Balzac's Pension Vauquer.

Not Monsieur and Madame Rougier in Aix. They were in their late 70s, but were quite entrepreneurial and had rehabbed the barn behind their house into a dormitory with ten double bedrooms. Having no interest in cooking daily for twenty, the Rougiers had installed a large communal kitchen where we girls could assemble to cook our own meals. Their house, off-bounds to us except in emergencies, was in the front of the courtyard by the iron gate -- we were out back in the old chicken yard. They got around the university's French-speaking requirement for students' home stays by making sure that least four of the girls living in the residence were French, studying at the fac. All things considered, we were thrilled with the freedom to come and go as we pleased, though I think our supposed discovery of French home life took a hit. But, boy, did we have wild fun hanging out with the gaggle of students and drinking cheap wine in the kitchen preparing our terrible student-budget meals -- nightly variations on pasta and eggs. We taught the French girls some Bob Dylan songs, and they mostly laughed at our pitiful attempts at colloquial French. Fair exchange. We all began speaking terrible Franglais, a special Rougier patois understood only by the denizens of the dortoire.

In the afternoons while my American cohorts were off in the language lab, I would relax outside on the wide sill of the ground-floor window to catch up on reading or to write in my journal as I pined for my boyfriend. Some days, Monsieur Rougier would hobble up the courtyard and plunk down next to me to bask in the last rays of the waning autumn sun.

He was a "typical" Frenchman in the old-fashioned sense: he wore a beret and those baggy trousers that we associate with la France profonde. He also had a wooden leg, having lost his lower limb in World War I.

I treasured those afternoons in the angled sun sharing the seat with Monsieur Rougier, when he would tell me in his resounding Provencal French about fighting in the trenches in la Grande Guerre. He was delighted to have an appreciative audience, Madame Rougier having already heard the war stories a thousand times over. I was too ignorant about military history to grasp many of the details of battles and heroes and strategies. But I still remember his stories of the mud in the trenches; how miserably wet and cold they were. "But we were miserable together," he said with a chuckle, cocking his head toward me as he remembered an oft-told joke or a buddy's grin. He had learned a little English in the trenches, he said. In order to facilitate smooth communication down the line, he explained, the soldiers were alternated French, British, Belgian, Canadian, miles on end, so that there was never a cluster of Francophones or Anglophones that could slow or impede the flow of pass-it-along information. Much of the English he had learned was not something he would share with a nice young lady like me. He smiled again, deep in his reminiscences.

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