Lesson at the Laverie
Travel Stories: In a Chamonix laundromat, Jim Benning learns that actions speak louder than words. Especially incomprehensible foreign words.
07.18.01 | 1:00 AM ET
The elderly woman startled me. I’d just begun tossing my dirty clothes into a washing machine inside Laverie Automatique, a not-too-chic laundromat in the French ski town of Chamonix, and I was absorbed in the task. I’d noticed the woman when I walked in. She had short gray hair, a warm, weathered face and big round glasses that dwarfed dark eyes. She’d been reading on the lone bench next to an empty laundry bag and a whirring machine, and she’d looked tired. Then, to my surprise, she was suddenly standing behind me, rattling off something in French. Judging by her hand gestures, which included arms waving and fingers pointing, her message was of great importance. Unfortunately, I had confined my foreign language studies to Spanish, and I didn’t understand a word.
“Parlez-vous anglais, madame?” I mustered, looking her way as I tossed a sock into the machine. “
I grinned, shrugged and threw my hands in the air to respectfully convey my language deficiency.
“Breetish?” she asked in a halting French-English hybrid.
She smiled and planted herself back on the bench. I imagined she had tired of fighting the language barrier and had given up. I tossed the last of my socks into the washer. But then the woman began anew. She spoke slowly this time, laboring to make herself understood. She furrowed her brow. She tilted her head. When she finished, she jerked her head forward, as if to punctuate her remarks with an exclamation point.
I shook my head helplessly, unsure of what to do or say. I knew nothing about this woman, but I was moved by her intensity and wanted to understand what she was saying. Maybe she was happy because her only daughter had just given birth. Perhaps her husband had died and she needed a compassionate ear. Or maybe she had simply discovered a fabulous fabric softener, new-and-improved, and she wanted to spread the good word.
I recalled my first trip to Europe as a wide-eyed 22-year-old, eager to engage anyone I could in conversation. Time and again, in France and Germany and Austria and Czechoslovakia, I ran up against a seemingly impenetrable language barrier, and it filled me with frustration. I cursed my parochial American education, and when I tired of that, I went even further. “Why can’t we all just speak a single language?” I wrote in my journal. “I don’t care which one, but let’s pick one. The world is too small these days for so many languages.”
Almost a decade later, having devoted many months to improving my Spanish skills but still lacking all but the most basic French phrases, I was equally frustrated. What was she saying? I settled on the same disheartening conclusion I had arrived at all too often during my travels abroad: I would never know.
I tried to decipher a hand-written sign on the wall explaining how to procure a cup of powdered detergent. Before I could dig for my francs, however, the woman leapt to her feet and grabbed her own bottle of liquid soap. To my surprise, she popped open the detergent lid on my machine, held the bottle aloft and poured in a big glob, all the while muttering something in French.
“Merci beaucoup,” I said.
I dropped several francs into the coin slot and the machine came to life. I sat down beside her.
“Je m’apelle Jim,” I managed. “Et vouz?”
“Chamonix?” I asked, wondering if she lived in town.
“Non,” she said. “Lyon.”
I pointed to myself. “Los Angeles.”
She grinned. We struggled through a few questions and answers. I heard her repeat the phrase “mon fils” several times, which my dictionary defined as, “my son.” As best I could determine Jeanine’s son was a skier who lived in Chamonix, and she was visiting him for a few days. She thought that I looked like him. Indeed, when she pulled his wet Levis from the washer, I saw they were my size: 32-34. I pointed to my own waist and offered a Spanish word, hoping the French might be similar.