Friday, May 6, 2011

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My first “Third Culture Kid” was a young Englishman/Frenchman/American whom I met in North Carolina. He had grown up in three different countries. When he decided to stay in Paris for his university studies, his parents and siblings moved on to a fourth. He then left France after graduation to work in America. I knew his family was “mixed up,” in a sense, even before meeting them. How does a family of British, French and American origin (just he and his brother were born on U.S. soil) end up in Belgium? As I sat on the train from Paris to Liege (I had been in the Loire Valley for graduate school), finally to meet his family, I had no idea just how much I would much my life would start to resemble theirs.

My then-only-a-boyfriend drove us to his family's home. The door opened and I saw a sweet, smiley, brown-haired Frenchwoman greet me with an enthusiastic, “Bonjour! (bisous, kiss, kiss) Vous avez fait bon voyage?” I took on the cheek kisses, then a deep breath, then exhaled the start of my pleased-to-meet-you-etc. speech in my best French only to hear a hardy, “Hello! Nice to see you!” My future father-in-law appeared behind his wife. Being completely caught off guard, I tripped over my English words, not knowing what to say, to whom, nor in what language.

I was then ushered into the living room as I tried to look at one person and answer in a particular language then at the other and respond accordingly. To complicate the affair, a brother and a sister came home. In my head I asked, “Good Lord, now what do I say?” Given that the siblings had been educated mainly in France and French-speaking Belgium, they both greeted me in French. All right, I thought, “English to the dad, French to everyone else.” By the time we headed to the dining room for lunch, I believed I had it all figured out – right, as figured out as knowing which fork to use.

My now-husband's mother prepared a perfectly gorgeous several-course lunch in the french manner. I was flattered to be treated so well. Then a dreadful thought crawled into my mind, “Will I have to know how to do this, too?!” While I was fearing my culinary future, conversation began. My now-husband's father spoke to his children in English and they responded in English. His wife addressed her children in French, they responded in French. To each other, they spoke in their respective languages. “Pass me the bread, please.” “Voici. Encore des haricots?” “Yes, thank you.” I tried to discreetly watch this linguistic tennis match until a funny story came up about my husband as a boy.

Everyone had a version. Forks were put down. Everyone began to speak atop one another. Knives were raised. The laughter rose. The voices got louder. All faces were staring at me as they tried to get their words out in between the pauses. My head started to spin as if in a bizarre dream.

“UNE langue et UNE personne à la fois!” (One language and one person at a time) It just came out...loud and clear. The silence conjured up the image of my mother shaking her head pitifully at my rudeness. I had just risked any future with this family. What possessed me speak up like that? My sanity. I honestly cannot remember exactly what happened next. I think they probably laughed at me...they still do.

To paraphrase, the said story came out like this. When my husband was about 10 years old, he and his younger brother and sister went to visit their uncle in Bristol, England. Their English uncle was under the impression that all French kids drank wine. In fact, this was and is a false assumption. However, on very special occasions, the children were allowed a very watered-down drop of champagne for toasting. And so, the uncle asked the children, to which the answer just about made his eyes pop out of his head, “Would you like red wine or white wine with dinner?” Being the eldest, my-husband-as-a-boy assumed the role as spokesperson and replied, “No thank, Uncle. We only drink champagne.”

That day in Liege was very telling in many ways. I have to look back in amazement really at the foreshadowing. Among other sights in Belgium, I visited Brussels' Grand Place that very weekend. After moving to Belgium years ago (for my husband's job without his company knowing his family was there), I found myself one day on the Grand Place and remembering the first time I spun around to see the whole view of the old guild buildings and the brasseries, admired the worn cobblestones, imagined just how many people must have also tripped on them over the centuries. There I was over a decade later looking at the backpackers, at the student travelers among whom I used to be. I couldn't help but smile at the seemingly obvious realization, “Oh my gosh. I live here.”

My sister- and brother-in-law still live in Belgium. And, although my parents-in-law have retired and moved back to France, we gather as a family quite often and the bilingual conversations are now the norm, minus the headaches. Our children, ever since they were toddlers, transition smoothly from English to French and back again in the same conversation. We have many special occasions to toast: marriages, births, holidays, personal achievements. For such events, I have improved my cooking skills, my entertainment etiquette and can put together a multi-course meal. The children have not tasted any champagne yet, but I certainly have come to appreciate it, along with red wine, white wine, a sip or two of Belgian beer, (...ok, and an occasional sherry). Needless to say, we continue to share lots of laughs. In the end, I see my in-laws much less mixed up than originally assumed, maybe because I have just added to the “mélange"(mix).

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