Friday, November 10, 2006

The second time is a charm

I was with the kids at the Bordeaux airport, Beth was busy finding out where her parents would be coming in. As per usual, each kid has brought along a few toys to amuse themselves with…usually it’s a car or a stuffed animal or a book. This time Colm is carrying around a pair of binoculars…he wants to see the airplanes. Me and the kids go up the escalator for kicks…we find a mechanical horse for kids – one euro per ride. They ride together, then they dismount and we go looking for the escalator going down. We reach the other end of the terminal only to discover that the escalators only go up…you have to take the stairs down. As we ponder our options I hear a voice behind me.

“Monsieur?” It is a young woman, dark skinned, with large brown eyes, she wears a scarf over her head.


“Vous parlez francais?”

When someone who is French asks you this question it is tempting to downplay your response, to say “a little” but I am brimming with confidence and I assert simply, “Oui.”

“Avez-vous perdus les jumelles?”

“Les jumelles?”


I am puzzled by the question. Jumelles is the femine form of the French word for twins. I don’t have twins I tell her. I check quickly…Colm and Tess are where I can see them. I suppose they might look like twins, I think to myself, trying to extend to her the benefit of the doubt. Here are my kids, I tell her.

She is clearly a bit nonplussed by my response, and I am at a loss to understand what could be amiss here. She tries again.

“Vous etiez là?” She points back in the direction of the horse. She also makes a gesture with her hands cupped around her eyes as if to accentuate the distance between here and there.

I nod. How did she know that? I wonder.Yes we were over there but then I repeat to her that in any case I don’t have any “jumelles.” I thank her again, but she only frowns, shrugs and turns away.

I collect the kids and we head back in the direction of the horse. I tousle Colm’s hair and notice that his binoculars aren’t around his neck…then it hits me. Jumelles must also mean binoculars.

“Merde!” I spin around to find the young woman, but she has vanished.

“What is it Daddy?” says Tess.

I’m about to try to answer her when I hear Colm say, “Look! The horse!”

Before I even look, I’m saying, “No more rides…” then I look up and see a little boy standing by the horse. His hand is on the binoculars which still hang from one of the handles on horse’s head. Les jumelles. Colm runs to the boy and recovers his toy. They boy is glad to see the binoculars taken away because now he can claim the horse for himself.

I spend the rest of our time in the airport keeping an eye open for the young woman who tried to overcome my own obtuseness with words and gestures to alert me to our loss. I reflect on how my own certainty (I knew after all what the word jumelle meant, after all) utterly prevented me from grasping what it was she was trying to tell me. If only I could tell her that she has taught me two things, to listen with my eyes as well as my ears and secondly, what jumelles means.

Three weeks later Beth gets mail from the Republic of France. She opens it and discovers that she has received a speeding ticket. It is dated on the same day we picked up her parents at the airport. The ticket indicates she was driving the rental car her parents had gotten. The fine is 95 euros. The infraction: going 59 kilometers/hr in a 50km/hr zone. It even includes the margin of error for the measuring device (5km/hr) which places her at 54 km/hr. For you folks who like to crunch numbers, that’s roughly doing 32/mph in a 30 mph zone. If Beth chooses to wait longer than two weeks to pay up, the fine goes up the 380 euros. Beth is of course mortified. I am too but I also secretly relieved that I wasn’t driving. We’re also mystified. Where were the cops? How did they catch us?

When I go to school the next day, I mention the ticket in passing to some teachers. It is as if I have entered a secret fraternity…everyone in the room has gotten a ticket, some of them right about the same time. I feel better. If only Beth were here, I think to myself. (As it turns out she is at almost the same hour discovering a similar sense of sisterhood with her friends at the market, speeding tickets the great social equalizer) Then I remember to ask them about how the police capture speeders in the act.

Martine, a math teacher, cups her hands around her eyes…it is a gesture that is vaguely familiar to me…and she says, “Les jumelles.”

“Ahhh…” I say with a knowing smile. “Les jumelles.” It feels so good to know what she means.



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