Monday, January 10, 2011

A Conversation Not Like Any Other

This Monday morning started off like any other. I got up, got dressed, calmly ate my breakfast and made a note to walk just a little faster to the train station.

As part of my New Year's resolutions, doing more exercise in the form of walking has become another priority in my life, and a trip to the train station from my house would easily be 50 minutes of extra activity.

Still, I would rely on the bus to take me to my job. My high school is on the other side of Dijon and there is no way I would get there on foot and still have the energy to teach my little angels students.

I packed my lunch containing lots of fruits and veggies (another resolution). I headed out the door.

Walking to the train station was a great idea! Had I taken the bus, I wouldn't have enjoyed strolling in the rare sunshine and blue skies that were present this winter morning. I wouldn't have made my traditional pilgrimage to Dijon's stone Chouette to caress it with my left hand and make a wish of finding love. I wouldn't have bustled my way through the crowd of people rushing past me. I would have just been another passenger crammed inside a stuffy bus of full of people who, judging by the miserable frowns plastered unto their pale faces, were just as ecstatic as I was that it was yet another Monday morning.

However, I got to the train station with enough time to see that I had just missed my ride by 3 minutes. When would the next bus be? An irritating 20 minutes.

Annoyance furrowed my brow. "Oh, putain," I angrily muttered under my breath. I didn't want anyone to know that I could now react instictively and use French profanities.

I looked around to see who else would become my temporary bus stop companions. One girl stuck out among them, particularly because her cellphone was playing Shakira's Loca in Spanish. She likes Shakira as well, I thought.

A wispy puff of exhaled breath escaped my flared nostrils as I plopped my behind onto the bench. I just couldn't fathom how I had just missed my damn bus.

"Ça va?" the small voice inquired with a worried tone. "Are you all right?"

I glanced to my left. Her pudgy fingers clutched the cellphone that had just finished playing the peppy song. I made eye contact with her and saw genuine concern look back upon me from her almond-shaped eyes. She must have noticed how I was a bit peeved off.

"Oui, ça va, merci," I replied with a light smile.

Then there was silence.

Until it was broken by the small voice.

"Do you have a cellphone?" Such a childlike question. Yes, of course, what adult doesn't have cellphone these days? Yet the question fit well with her stocky frame and innocence. She did not merit a response laden with sarcasm.

"Yes," I replied.

"Do you have music?"

"Yes, but not on my cellphone."

Then, as if I were totally oblivious to the fact, she proudly waved her own treasure, pointed to it with one stubby finger and, absolutely beaming, proclaimed "Ah! My cellphone has music!"

"Yes, I heard it playing a song by Shakira a couple of minutes ago. I love her music. In fact, I'm half-Colombian."

Silence again. I did not know what to say. How does one make conversation with someone like her? What does she care that I am half-Colombian, for that matter?

"Do you know of Ingrid Betancourt? She's the Colombian lady who was in the jungle."

I was stunned by her knowledge. Yes, I know of Ingrid Betancourt, the Colombian ex-presidential candidate who had lived half of her life in France and who had been kidnapped by the terrorist group the FARC for six years.

"Yes, I know of her. She was liberated from her kidnappers a couple of years ago. Everyone in Colombia rejoiced about it."

"So, are you Colombian? I noticed that when you speak you have a bit of...euh..." She searched for the means to express herself. She had to really focus on what word she needed. I had seen my French students struggle with this similar task during their classes when they made the effort to speak in English.

"An accent?" I suggested helpfully.

"Eh, ben, oui!" Of course.

She often let this phrase fall from her lips with just the most wonderful smile, as if she had just gotten an inside joke.

I continued to explain my background.

"Well, yes, I do have an accent because I'm also half-Cuban. But I'm an American."

Even after many months of living in France, I still wonder how new French people will react to this little fact about myself. Will they like it? Will they be impressed by it? Will they judge me harshly? Will they immediately think about the rooted stereotypes about how my countrymen are all obese and wolf down McDonald's for breakfast, lunch and dinner without remorse?

My statement didn't even faze her.

"Do you eat in France?" Another infantile question. If I'm in France, then of course I'd have to eat in France...yet something told me that she wanted to ask something else.

"What do you mean," I asked implying that she needed to elaborate her question.

"I mean that when you are in France, you mostly eat Colombian or Cuban food? For example, the Belgians eat French fries."

"Ahhh. Well, in France, it is hard to find Colombian or Cuban food because you can't always find the ingredients. So I mostly eat French food. If I want to eat Colombian or Cuban food, then I would have to make it for myself."

"Eh, ben, oui!"

The 20 minutes passed by quickly.

"Ah, my bus is here," I told her after I had spotted my transportation turn around the corner. It turned out that she was taking the same bus.

We sat next to each other and continued our question and answer scenario.

"Do you eat breakfast?"

"Yes. Just this morning, I had some brioche with home-made apricot and strawberry jam. I also drink a strong cup of café au lait using Cuban espresso. What do you eat in the mornings?"

"I like to eat cookies and cakes with a glass of milk. Are you a student in France?"

"No, I work here. I teach English at a high school and I love my job. My students are very nice to me."

"Ah. I work in a dry cleaner. I went to school so I could learn it."

"Was it difficult for you to learn?"

"Eh, ben, oui!" She reinforced her answer with a vigorous nod.

The mention of schooling brought up another point.

"I went to a special school for, you know, people like me. People who are handicappé. People with trisomie."

I could not help but feel a bit sad in hearing that word. Trisomie. Down's Syndrome. Just by looking at her, I knew that she had this.

"Do you know what that is?" she asked.

"Yes, I do."

But really I don't.

I know that Down's Syndrome is a genetic condition in which there is an extra copy of a chromosome.

I always thought that people with this condition were incapable of actually functioning well in society. I thought that they could not speak to others, let alone hold a proper conversation. I thought they were people who could not relate to others and needed to sport helmets on their heads.

I never thought that they could work in dry cleaners, that they could own cellphones, know who Ingrid Betancourt is or even be a Shakira fan like me.

How very wrong I was.

Barb the French Bean


  1. Aw. I feel sad at this (can't elaborate on why exactly), but also happy at the same time that this girl is able to work a job, own a phone, and be social enough to engage you in conversation.

    Most people wouldn't bother randomly, in public, especially at a bus or train station.

    How do you feel about the whole conversation in hind sight?

  2. I honestly can't explain how I feel. Is it shock, awe, wonder? Sadness or happiness?

    Like you said, Steph, most people wouldn't bother speaking to strangers in public, so I'm still thinking about how natural it seemed for her to just come out and talk to a completely unknown person. I admire that, frankly.


  3. This is very cool. Just the random conversation with a stranger, I mean. I took four years of French in high school, but it would be cool to be as fluent as you.

  4. I think you missed that ride on purpose. Sometimes we need to meet people who make us reassess how we think. :)

  5. I've met a few very friendly Down Syndrome. I think I understand the feeling you had.

  6. Barbara, this is my favorite post from you...and most of the time I love your funny posts best. But you hit the nail on the head by saving the operative detail for the end of the story, and by the time I got there, it hit me hard. Especially in our technology-science-driven society, in which it is becoming increasingly easy to spot "handicaps" like Downs Syndrome in the womb -- and then give the mother the opportunity to decide whether to keep the baby alive or not, this story is relevant and thought provoking. What if this woman had never had the chance to meet you because her "handicap" had been eliminated, along with her life, before birth? An inflamatory question, perhaps, but one that begs to be asked...and answered. This woman brightened your day, and proved to be so much more than what you might have expected from her at first. Bravo for taking the time to get to know her as a valuable person, with dignity and worth just like the rest of us.

  7. Amoutoujou: with a little more practice, you'll get up to this level. :-)

    Tricia: I think so as well. I'm a strong believer that everything happens for a reason, whether it be good or bad.

    Stu: Perhaps you do after all...

    Emily: Thanks so much for the compliment. I quite agree and wonder the same things myself, about the "what-if" scenarios of life. Meeting her certainly open my eyes just a little bit more of the different people in this grand world of ours. :-)


  8. That's a great post, really heartwarming. Thank you.

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  10. I think it was a nice conversation...and I know someone with Down Syndrome and can say that the only thing that differentiates them from the normal people is the absolute honesty they have as opposed to the double faced attitude some of the normal people have. Also, wanted to let you know that you have an award waiting at my blog... :)

  11. Just saw your blog in a coffee shop forum post. I absolutely love this. I spend three mornings a week in a classroom with special needs children, 3-5 years old. I'm always thrilled when they do something I never expected them to be able to do, so this story is something I can really relate to. Thanks so much for sharing it. :)


Apparently, leaving comments on this blog is a hit-or-miss game of Russian roulette: you are either lucky and can comment away, or you are required to log in when the settings are CLEARLY set to allow trouble-free commenting (sorry 'bout that, folks). If anything, the Facebook page is always a viable option. :) -Barb