I have been quiet for a few weeks following an emergency trip my husband and I took to France. Our son, studying abroad, suffered a terrible accident. We are all home now and he is recovering beautifully, which means I can breathe again and string words together again and most importantly, express my thankfulness. So, here is my Facebook-style gratitude list:
Dijon Feels Like Home
My son selected a program in Dijon, France partly because I studied there while in college. This frantic trip was not the kind of homecoming I expected but truthfully, I took comfort in the familiar tile roofs and the unchanged narrow Roman streets. Dijon has grown even more beautiful and it lifted my spirits. And it smells precisely the same, which is to say good!
Hôpital le Bocage, C’est Excellent!
It is extremely difficult to handle a medical crisis in a foreign country but luckily, Dijon is home to a sleek state-of-the-art teaching hospital. The standards are similar to ours and our son received excellent care. It is worth noting that he was in the neurosurgery unit of the hospital for over a week before anyone asked about insurance.
I will admit to being intimidated by the nurses. It seems they have more power than their American counterparts. But as we became better acquainted, (and after I delivered pastries to their office,) relations warmed to the point that we shared many a bawdy joke at the expense of our improving patient.
Le Tramway Pour Tout Le Monde
We ran out the door when we got word of the accident and within 24 hours, we were at our son’s bedside. This was possible for one reason only – France has superb public transportation. From Paris to Dijon, the TGV, a high-speed train, runs several times a day. In Dijon, a tram runs along grassy corridors that crisscross all over town, and we rode it daily to and from the hospital. It was marvelous -- quiet on the inside, quiet on the street, inexpensive, safe, and efficient. Milwaukee needs this. We took photos to send to our mayor.
The food! Good Lord, the food!
Everyone accepts that French cuisine may be the finest in the world. But when even the hospital food is incredible, then you know you’re onto something deep-seeded. At every meal, we eyed our son’s hospital tray, trying to wait a decent interval before asking, “You gonna eat that?” Once, alongside his piece of cheese, he received a basket with five perfect plums. Five. Every day after lunch, an aid rolled a cart through the halls offering tea and coffee, and our patient learned to say ‘oui’ whether he desired un café or not.
J’adore les Français!
Yes, I love the French. I love them for their smells, for their hospitals, for their trams, and for their food, but most sincerely I love them because they loved us. It's true! Many would contest this, citing the coldness or superiority that Americans sometimes feel from the French. Yet all of that, I will tell you, is simply a reserve -- a guard around their emotions. One French woman put it well when she explained that Americans are like fish, soft on the outside, with their beating hearts visible to all, while the French are like coconuts with their liquid insides deeply hidden.
On this trip, I learned that our softness, our openness, our lack of guard is exactly what the French most love about us. For the first time ever, I went plowing through the country not caring what anyone thought of me. I was completely myself -- questioning, emotional, loud. And they responded with understanding, kindness, and generosity.
At a time when we could have been completely alone in a foreign city, a little cocoon of people formed around us. The directrice of the dorm where my son lived became a daily visitor, as did an older gentleman whom my son had befriended on his first day in Dijon. Our French friends from other family connections made trips from Paris and Lyon to sit with us. They introduced us to their friends in Dijon, complete strangers to us who opened their home without hesitation, feeding us and providing a welcome distraction. All of these lovely people dropped their French reserve to ease our discomfort and help us navigate a difficult situation.
How can we ever make clear our sincere thanks? The French language has many words for 'love' but that is not the case for expressions of gratitude. Until we meet again, a simple "merci beaucoup" will have to do.