Petit a Petit
French, then, became the common link among all of Lastoursville’s disparate people. It wasn’t textbook French or the symphonic French I’d dreamed of speaking one day, but it was serviceable French. It helped to keep the peace. It made it possible for people to communicate using commonly understood words instead of with the swoosh of a fast-moving machete or the thud of a bullet in the chest.
WHAT THE CITIZENRY of Lastoursville lacked in French language accuracy, though, they made up for in speed.
“Lentement, s’il vous plait,” I would beg, smiling sheepishly to cover up the tears of frustration welling in my eyes. I’d press a flat hand down into thin air, as if applying brakes. Please speak more slowly.
And invariably the African would say to me, kindly, knowingly, empathetically, “Ah, oui, ‘Petit a petit l’oiseau fait son nid.’”
Yes, I thought, nodding agreeably, “little by little the bird builds his nest. But for me the clock is ticking; I only have two years here. I’m a New Yorker, which means impatient. I have so much to do, and so little time. How can I teach and learn or even belong without words?”
Time and again, when I tried to have an exchange with someone and he or she could see my difficulties finding le mot juste or following their half of the conversation, the person would try to soothe and comfort me. It was as if he or she were saying in English, There, there. It’ll be all right. You’ll get it. You’ll do fine . . .. Instead, what they said in French was, “Ah, oui, ‘Petit a Petit’ . . ..”
And I’d jump in and complete the saying, to let the person know I knew it. But did I? This maxim was repeated so often to me it became like a tinselly advertising slogan: empty words.
APART FROM MY WALKS to the marche every morning and my visits there with maman Leora who spoke French to me slowly and clearly, like a mother to a young child I didn’t do much socializing. How could I socialize without words?
Instead, I spent my first weeks transforming my dream house into a homey nest that would be clean and welcoming and safe from intruders specifically, the hateful bugs. Alone, with a bucket and brushes, I scrubbed and painted. By hand, I sewed curtains and covered cheap foam pillows with bright African fabrics. I designed an L-shaped sofa for the living room that a local carpenter built for me for the equivalent of $40. I made a coffee table from a flat, discarded door, supported by five-gallon paint tins, and spread delicious-looking issues of Gourmet magazine on the top of it. Bev, the missionary, whom I’d befriended and with whom I could speak beloved English, loaned me a folding table and plastic chairs for my dining room. I bought a small stove-oven combination, made in Eastern Europe, from one of the local Lebanese merchants with some of my Peace Corps allowance, so I could bake bread. I arranged for window screens to be installed, to keep the loathsome bugs forever out of my house.