When life gives you lemons, it helps to recognize them

Lemon tree with lemons

Listen to Brenda tell the story

For those of us who predate Google Maps, convoluted directions to a friend’s house are undaunting. Instructions like “Turn right at the gas station” or “Take the third left after the light” are the norm. So when I visit my friend Magali and she tells me how to get to her house, I am initially unfazed. But considering that she lives in France, it dawns on me that it might get tricky. Everything is going to be in French. It turns out that it isn’t just the foreignness of the language that proves my undoing.

My friend is working late the evening I arrive. Pas de problème. She has left me a key, but I must get there by public transportation. Vivid pictures in my mind show me getting breezily off the bus waving a pleasant “Au revoir!” to a beret-clad bus driver and sauntering over to the old, converted farmhouse where she is purported to live. My mind has surrounded the house with a garden – and is that a stream I see nearby? Oui, vive la French countryside.

Reality is painting a much bleaker picture. Rather less like a colorful Monet water lily canvas, more along the lines of Goya’s Black Paintings in his later years in France. My bus ride is getting suspiciously long and the sun is setting. No longer in the city, the houses are getting farther and farther apart. Gone are the pink monumental buildings that define the town center of Toulouse.

This is not looking good.

The stop is called montagne, she had told me. At least that’s what it sounded like. French for mountain. Easy.

But a couple of stops ago – oh, it’s been five already; how time flies on the bus – the driver had announced the stop “Michel Montaigne.” Like the philosopher, I muse in my bus ride stupor, focused on holding my suitcase so it doesn’t roll away.

Wait a minute. Montagne? Spelled “gne” – and Montaigne – with an aigne?

These are pronounced almost exactly the same. Could it be…yes. I got the name wrong and missed my stop. Foiled by one letter.

Soon I find myself standing on a French roundabout, looking around and about. And feeling very lost. Time to activate Plan B, which is to ditch the whole public transportation thing (my French is too rusty, let’s face it) and take a taxi.

However, looking around and about some more reveals that there is no taxi in sight. Instead, there are lots of apartment blocks and women pushing babies in strollers. They must be local and know their way around. I briefly consider asking them for help.

But what do I say? Am I looking for a mountain or a philosopher? And how do I say it?

Wait! Salvation is at hand. There is another bus waiting at the corner with the driver seated behind an open door with no passengers. This is the ideal opportunity to speak bad French in front of a minimum number of people – namely, one. He is not wearing a beret, to my disappointment, but he’ll do.

“Excusez-moi, bus? Arrêt Montaigne, non, là?” I say, smiling enthusiastically and waving my arm in the direction where I got off the bus. To my boundless relief, the driver understands and points me to where I can catch the bus going back in the opposite direction. In my confusion, I had wandered far away from the spot where I initially got off.

The bus arrives. I’m on a roll now. I can speak French. Heck, I just did it with that last bus driver.

“Good day, Monsieur. I have descended the bus incorrectly. The mountain turned out to be a philosopher and I must return whence I originated.”

The advantage to sounding so ear-shatteringly foreign is that people immediately recognize you for what you are. Clueless. The friendly driver tells me to “install myself” on the seat nearby and he will inform me of the correct stop. I don’t even have to pay the fare again. This pathetic foreigner thing does have its advantages.

Another bus ride, a bit of searching, and I finally find the right house.

The next challenge is at hand.

Magali has hidden the key under the lemon tree on the terrace, but there are four pots with large tree-like plants. But where are the lemons? There is not a single lemon to be seen. In Ohio, my contact with lemons was restricted to the “lemon pledge” furniture polish my mom sprayed on the piano. Give me a maple tree, cottonwood or apple tree any day – even without the apples – and I’d be fine. I’d even climb them. But lemon?

The other supposed clue is that the lemon tree is just opposite the almond tree growing in the yard. The almond tree? That’s not in my tree portfolio, either.

By this time it is pitch black. I pull out my cell phone and turn on the flashlight. If I can’t figure out which tree is lemon I’ll just examine all of them. One by one I lift them up, but they’re heavy. And each rests on a separate clay dish. Is the key in the dish or under the dish?

Suddenly, I realize that the neighbors can see me with my light, poking around in the dark. In the U.S., if a neighbor sees you in the yard messing around…well, we’ve all read the papers, haven’t we? Bang! That does it. I doubt the French have any artillery heavier than stale baguette crumbs, to be honest, but this is no time to take chances.

I turn off my phone, sit down on a garden chair and resign myself to simply waiting on the terrace. I keep studying the pots, now shrouded in darkness, wondering which one is the pesky lemon tree. I sit stock still, just in case a neighbor has spotted me.

When Magali comes home, she can’t stop laughing at this stupid Midwesterner who can’t tell a lemon tree from an almond. Well, just wait ‘til I get her to the U.S. and send her out to the pumpkin patch to find an acorn squash. She’d never come back.

Brenda Arnold

Also interesting:
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The French girl who wouldn’t talk
Linguistic sleight of hand – bilingualism at any cost

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