“At twenty-two, I moved to Vancouver and worked two jobs – by day a secretary at The Bayshore Inn, by night a cocktail waitress in a nightclub. I saved all my money for airfare and tuition to study French in France. But where in France? I purchased a large map of the country, stuck it to my bedroom wall and spent hours pondering the coastlines and tracing the rivers: the Rhone, the Loire, the Garonne. Landscape and climate were my primary considerations. Where did I think I’d like to live for a year: Grenoble at the foothills of the Alps? Bordeaux with its outlying vineyards? The seaside city of Marseilles? Lyon, the city between two rivers? Or perhaps back to lovely Aix-en-Provence, the city of fountains and plane trees, where I had spent my seventeenth summer.
A year later found me sitting in a sunwashed square in Montpellier, a city in the Languedoc region of south-west France, wedged between the Mediterranean Sea to the south and the foothills of the Cevennes mountains to the north. I was twenty-three and enrolled in a French program for foreign students at Paul Valery University. My first week was both exhilarating and exhausting. Every morning I’d leave the hotel near the train station and make my way to the student housing office to receive a fresh list of addresses. Student accommodation was tight. I tirelessly trudged the streets, map in hand, and visited a dizzying array of lodgings, all unacceptable for varying reasons. My biggest challenge was the language. To articulate my thoughts into French, let alone understand what people were saying to me, was a mentally arduous undertaking. Every evening I’d return to my modest hotel room and collapse, exhausted, onto the bed.
And then I struck gold. I was given the address of a certain Madame Fauchère, widow and retired concert pianist, who lived in a honey-hued Belle Epoque building in the center of town. I was instructed to show up at her apartment on the rue Saint Firmin, a narrow sidestreet leading off the main rue Foch. Arriving one sunny morning at the designated hour, I pushed open the exterior door and found myself in a foyer with a black and white marble tile floor. To my left was a curving staircase with an elaborate wrought-iron balustrade. I walked up its steps, and as I did so I rehearsed the line I would use to introduce myself. High above, an ornate chandelier hung from the ceiling. I reached the third floor and, breathing heavily, stood on the landing and composed myself. There was one apartment to each floor. Beside the double doors of the apartment was a polished brass button which could only be a bell. I pressed it and waited.
The door swung open and in its frame stood a woman who looked to be in her late sixties. She was tall and soignée, with upswept hair and bluish-gray eyes that glinted at me from behind her glasses. She wore a crisp white blouse underneath a cardigan that looked like it was cashmere, a classic calf-length skirt and sensible but stylish low-heeled pumps. Nesting under the silk scarf at her neck, I caught sight of a gold chain hung with a small religious pendant. Her wrists were also ornamented with gold jewelry. In later years I would know this to be the uniform of the Roman Catholic bourgeoisie in France.
“Bonjour, Madame,” I said politely. I was so nervous I forgot my name and the one line I had carefully prepared.
The setting was so formal and she so distinguished-looking that for an instant I felt I should curtsy or respectfully incline my head. I regretted not bringing some sort of offering – a floral bouquet or a ribboned box of chocolates from the best chocolatier in town. Despite my unfamiliarity with this mannered world, I did know one rule in France: never shake a woman’s hand unless she offers it, so I stood, deferential and demure, on the landing.
“Bonjour, bonjour, Mademoiselle!” she trilled in a high-pitched, fluty voice. “Entrez! Entrez!” She held open the door and gestured me in. I stepped into an airy, high-ceilinged apartment whose interior belonged to another age. There was a faint smell of fresh linen and lavender. Across the entrance hall with its creamy marble flooring was the living room, or what the French call le salon, flooded with sunshine and crowded with antique furniture. I imagined long-skirted ladies gathering for needlepoint, sipping tea from Limoges teacups and perhaps nibbling on petit fours served to them by a dutiful domestique.
Floor to ceiling windows extended the width of one wall and opened onto a balcony that overlooked the street below. There were glass-fronted cabinets, plump armchairs scattered with small embroidered cushions, a chaise longue upholstered in blue velvet and beside it a dainty side table upon which a folded newspaper and reading glasses lay. A massive armoire dominated one end of the room and at the other end, a shining black piano. I wondered if she still played.
“Suivez-moi!” she chirruped and headed down a hallway, “Je vous montrerai la chambre.” (Follow me, I’ll show you the room.) I obediently trailed after her and then, suddenly aware of being in the private residence of a total stranger far-away from home, I felt shy like a young girl again. I wished that my mother were at my side. How she would have been fascinated by this grand lady and her sumptuous surroundings.
We stood in the student bedroom, which was as plush and inviting as the living room, and Madame questioned me in that curious piping voice – where in Canada was I from? What did my parents do? How long would I stay in Montpellier? Once I was sure I had fully understood the questions, I labored to reply as articulately as possible. She looked intently at my mouth as I spoke, almost as if she were lip-reading. And then a woman silently appeared from a back room – a daughter? an employee or personal secretary? – and, addressing herself to me, stated plainly “Madame est sourde.”
Sourde. I knew that word. With lightening speed I mentally riffled through my store of new vocabulary. Sourde is the feminine of sourd which means … dumb? blind? No … deaf. “Complètement sourde …” the other woman was saying.
Madame Fauchère, like Beethoven, was stone deaf.”
That was a small extract from my book (memoir), due out this summer.
I lived in Montpellier for two years, way back in the 1980s. I was a student at Paul Valéry university. I think it’s time to make a return trip there. Here’s what people are saying about this southern, cosmopolitan city –
Located six miles inland from the Mediterranean coast, France’s fastest-growing and now seventh-largest city is graceful and easy-going. Students make up over a third of the population, giving it a spirited vibe. Montpellier is a stylish metropolis with elegant buildings, grand hôtels particuliers (private mansions), stately boulevards and shady backstreets, and gorgeous white-sand beaches on its doorstep.
Here are two links about the city. The Lonely Planet and last week’s “Cities in the spotlight” published by The Guardian newspaper –