Thursday, January 23, 2014

Pearls of Wisdom

Pearls of Wisdom

The one thing Beth could not say was “surgeon,” despite her status as the most celebrated of that year’s crop of international exchange students.
Chirurgien, the French translation of “surgeon,” was a word that she could easily spell, remember, and write. Yet each time she tried to pronounce it, the curvaceous word stuck to the roof of her mouth like the waxy, fruit-shaped marzipan that her host brother Philippe had given her for Saint Nicolas back in December.
Beth was proud of her full scholarship to study abroad in Belgium. She reveled in her speedy immersion into the language and culture, especially since such achievements made her friends, family, and sponsors back in the States so proud. But the unexpected linguistic roadblock, and her need to say the word correctly, troubled her.

Since moving to Belgium, Beth had gone by Elizabeth, pronounced Elizabette. The French pronunciation of her nickname was Bette, which sounded an awfully lot like bête, or the French for “silly” or “stupid.” Beth was neither of these things, certainly not in her own eyes, and she intended on keeping it that way. The alias also made her feel slightly exotic. Beth was from a suburb of Minneapolis, she imagined.
Elizabeth was a world traveler residing in a rustic stone farmhouse in a picturesque village just outside of Brussels. 
Beth was enrolled in the senior class of the local high school and lived with a slightly snobbish host family, the Langlois. Such immersion had helped her avoid the typical exchange student temptations of surrounding oneself with fellow Americans, always speaking English, and pretending to be on vacation. Beth had enjoyed the experience so far. Her only complaint, which she never revealed to anyone, was the ever-changing mood of her host mother, Marie-Therese. A fierce widow and middle school Composition teacher, she was as jovial as she was austere. Beth never knew which version of her maman belge, or Belgian Mom, she would get when she returned home from school.

The only joy in Marie-Therese’s life was her son, Philippe. He was her petit prince, as she liked to call him, and she showered him with affection as the trio sat on the couch in the evenings and watched Franco-British made for television co-productions. Philippe, like any hyper, awkward fourteen year old boy, scrambled away from his mother’s sugary sweet attention. He wiped away her kisses from his pale, pimply cheeks and contorted himself as she rustled his perfectly gelled hair, all the while laughing with an open mouth, full of braces shimmering below thick, juicy gums.
*   *   * 

The late afternoon light across the fields grew purple as a heavy mist engulfed the stone farmhouse. Beth sat at the round kitchen table, the one covered in a bright yellow and red-orange provincial oil cloth. She had spent her study hall, lunch hour, bus ride home, and the last hour over her afternoon snack of Nutella and waffle cookies trying to pronounce the word. She just could not wrap her head, or tongue, around it. Chirurgien. What bothered her more was that her wisdom teeth, les dents de sagesse, were coming in sooner than expected.

On her last visit to the dentist before she left the States, an X-ray had revealed that all four wisdom teeth were horizontally impacted. The dentist had assured her she could hold off on having the surgery performed until she came home the following summer. There it was, only February, and a dull, deep pressure throbbed inside her jaws, as if her mouth would explode in all four corners. Beth felt her teeth, shiny like a strand of pearls and straightened by orthodontics, pushing themselves against one another by unseen adversaries. She had complained on the phone to her mother back in the States, and was told that all she had to do was select an oral surgeon and that health insurance would cover it. “Surgeon.” Chirurgien. Anyway you said it, socialized medicine or not, those teeth had to come out.

Beth opened her book bag, removed her notebook, and began writing a note to Marie-Therese, neatly printing the message. Marie-Therese had once remarked that Beth’s handwriting was messy and undisciplined. Beth wrote with her left hand and held her right jaw with the other.

Chere Marie-Therese, she wrote.
J’ai mal aux dents…
Beth hoped that Marie-Therese would find the note when she came home, while Beth took a nap and tried to forget about her sore mouth and pronunciation anxieties. Maybe when she awoke, the issue would be addressed without her having to struggle over the difficult word. Moreover, she could avoid embarrassing herself in front of Marie-Therese.

Mes dents de sagesse, she continued.
Je dois aller voir un chirurgien…

Just then, the front door opened and blew a swirl of dead leaves into the shadowy foyer. Marie-Therese entered the house. She shook off the cold and removed her scarf, her demeanor as proud and as striking as a peacock.

“Salut, Elizabeth,” she said with a sigh, her face red from the frosty walk from the bus stop.

“Salut, Maman,” Elizabeth replied, and self-consciously placed her hands over the unfinished note.

“Philippe est-la?” Marie-Therese asked.

Beth reminded her that he had gone to play table tennis with friends after school. Marie-Therese looked disappointed, as if denied a reward. She pulled out a chair and sat across from Beth.

“Tsk, tsk, tsk,” Marie-Therese offered almost judgmentally, eyeing the aftermath of Beth’s nervous binge that had spread itself across the table. She delicately screwed the cap back on the jar of Nutella and tightly folded the seal of the waffle cookie bag.
A few weeks prior, at a neighborhood dinner party, Marie-Therese had made an offhanded comment about Beth’s noticeable weight gain, a common occurrence among exchange students, and especially in a country famous for chocolate, fries, and beer. Marie-Therese sipped her aperitif and explained to the others that what they didn’t tell you about hosting an exchange student was how they double in size once they arrive, so you really got two for the price of one. Beth had laughed along with the group to seem mature, but the subtle jab had left its mark on her confidence. It was as if Marie-Therese had forgotten that Beth could understand every word she said, or worse, didn’t care.

“Qu’est-ce que tu fait la?” Marie Therese asked curiously, snapping Beth out of her recollection. She reached for Beth’s note.

Beth’s competitive nature and need to look strong in the face of fear overcame her.

“Maman, j’ai mal aux dents,” she began, practically reciting her note. “Je dois aller voir un chirur….chirur…chirurgien…”

Marie-Therese stared at Beth in confusion.

“Pardon?” she asked.

“Jedoisallervoirunchirurgien,” Beth repeated, this time quickly, hoping she had said it right.

 “Encore, une fois, Elizabeth,” she said, her brow furrowed in mild frustration.

Beth grew more nervous; she was no longer blending in with the locals, no longer immersed. She imagined with horror that she was now somehow doomed to join the masses of stereotypical, ugly American exchange students who didn't try to speak the language, who relied on Frommer’s guides to get around, and spoke like garbled Speak and Say toys from small English-French dictionaries instead of what she was: a future French major at Vassar where she was set to begin college in the fall.

“Un Chi—rur—gi—en,” Beth slowly pronounced, hoping that she had hit every nuance, accent, and inflection necessary to communicate with the now impatient petite redhead staring at her across the table. Beth surrendered and pointed to the piece of notebook paper.

“Ah,” Marie-Therese replied, though she did not pronounce the word aloud. Beth decided this was probably intentional, to prevent her from knowing the true pronunciation of the word, so that Marie-Therese would remain in the power position.

“Oui,” Beth replied, both relieved and humiliated. “Pour mes dents de sagesse,” she added, touching her jaw.

“Weezdom teet,” Marie-Therese said in slightly condescending broken English, as her French accent made each word sound strangely glamorous.

“Oui, Maman,” Beth replied, with a forced smile.

*   *   * 

Marie-Therese insisted she make the call to the surgeon’s office so that nothing would get lost in translation. Beth agreed but felt humiliated, and watched as her host mother sat perched on an ottoman in the salon, facing the window, smoking and talking on the phone as if Beth wasn’t in the room, sitting a few feet from her, listening to every word. When Marie-Therese explained that Beth was an exchange student, there was a pause in the conversation. She could tell that the doctor had asked Marie-Therese if Beth spoke French. Marie-Therese hesitated a bit, as if she wanted Beth to be aware of her judgment.

“Oui…Americaine,” Marie-Therese said and looked over her shoulder.

The front door slammed and Philippe’s carefree whistle echoed down the hallway. He entered the salon, offered Beth a cursory nod, and smiled at his mother. Marie-Therese beamed, rose, and placed the phone in the crook of her neck, the white cord creating a spiraling life line across the plush Oriental rug. Marie-Therese leaned over Beth to give her petit prince two kisses, and the tiny host family formed a bridge over her, as if she were a suspicious puddle to avoid.
Beth gazed out the window of the salon and watched the sun sink below the medieval skyline of the neighboring township. She held her jaw, pretended she was included in this exclusive family embrace, and decided once and for all that no matter what she did, no matter how well she ever spoke French, getting a compliment out of her maman belge would be like pulling teeth.


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