One of the things I love about New York is that you never have to eat alone, or with anyone else. Tonight, I had a girls' night out dinner at a restaurant known for its Pan-Asian noodle dishes. Of the four of us I was the only native born American, but because of my upbringing, I'm pretty sure I don't represent America the way my friends see it. Peachy, the bike racer who won silver twice in Jesse's name, is from Romania. She's leaving tomorrow for a few weeks in eastern Africa, and was in recovery from her malaria pills. GG, close to my old lady status, is Moroccan, and Mariana is from Ukraine. Somehow we got on the subject of Americans and geography. Gg had recently been asked if the pyramids were in Morocco. Then she told us about a coworker who wanted to honeymoon in Paris, without having any idea where it was. Honestly, if you didn't know Americans, would you think she was making it up? I told her, no wonder Parisians don't like Americans, coming to town not knowing where they are, not able to speak the language, and angry that Parisians don't act like Americans. Then when people come here, I said, Americans get mad because they don't know English, can't read signs, and don't act like Americans. Peach talked about how hard it was to go back to Romania and speak Romanian again, found herself translating directly from English, and scaring the locals: Can you break this 20? She asked a shopkeeper, who looked at her in horror. You want me to tear it in half???!
When I first got here, GG said, the only English I spoke was British English and I couldn't understand a word of American English. I
had to laugh. When I first got here from Ohio, I told her, I couldn't understand anyone here either. They talk too fast, they mumble...I kept telling people, could you please repeat that, slowly?
Now, GG sighed, when I go home they say I speak Arabic with an accent. My French has an accent, my English has an accent. Every language I speak, people look at me a little funny, trying to figure out where I'm from. Same with Mariana in Ukraine. People can tell right away she's not from there any more.
I didn't respond, but it brought me back to the week in New Orleans. I used to talk like that. If I stay there long enough, I will again. I listen to the voices around me and I can pick out who lives in the bayous of Louisiana-Mississippi, who lives in inland Mississippi, who lives in Metairie, who lives in the city--and sometimes what social group they belong to: working class Irish Catholic? Cajun? Creole? Lakeshore Protestant? Post-WWII southerners? you can tell. As we were passing Memere's old neighborhood one day, I could hear her voice reading the name of a nearby street: Neyrey, and I realized, right then, that you could hear in the way she said it, the vestige of her French accent, in how she pronounced the r. For a moment, she was there with us in the car. Neywwrhey. I told my son and imitated how she'd have said it, and he could hear it too.
When she was in the Chateau de Notre Dame rest home, I'd visit her, and speak to her in French. The first time, she cried to hear it. Later, she kept mistaking me for a childhood friend. I didn't see the point in correcting her all the time. What did she need of reality, at 99? She was much happier if we were both 12 and talking about the summer to come.