It's easy to be overlooked when you're a language learner in a foreign country. Encounters with new people go something like this:
The 3 obligatory kisses on the cheeks
Each person states their name, and that they're pleased to meet the other.
They ask where I'm from, and when I say California, I am given celebrity status. Especially when I say I live near SF. They usually mention that they know it through some TV series.
Then the conversation continues amongst the friends, and the once incredibly cool Californian is quickly forgotten as normal life resumes.
I don’t mind. In fact, I loved it when I first got here because I could be an invisible observer. But it didn’t take long to realize I didn’t have any French friends. The people at Secours Populaire (where I volunteer) are very nice, but even after a few weeks working there, I still felt like an outsider. They all chat up a storm while we’re working, and I didn’t join in much because the language was so fast, and a lot of times they would talk about events I hadn’t been part of, or people I didn’t know. Now that I’ve been there a little over a month, things are mostly different, and most times I’m right in on the conversation. I’m still not one of them, but I am able to laugh and joke and have fun and feel normal. I feel like I belong, and I love it.
But there was one person who saw me from the start, during the stages when I was still invisible to everyone else. Meet Simone.
She is 87 years old. She’s from the Paris region, and moved here about 10 years ago with her husband. He has since passed away, and in order to keep from being lonely, she volunteers at SP three mornings per week. She was an accountant by profession, and loves numbers, so she works as the cashier in our store. From the first time I was asked to help her, she saw me. She never acted like things were any different between me and anyone else despite my less than fluid language skills.
I would help her out at the front desk, just to make sure she didn’t get confused or forget things. When we didn’t have any customers, she would just talk with me, and ask me questions, and feed me the words I struggled with. She’s a wealth of knowledge for the things she’s passionate about: energies and astrology, and such. She taught me how to test the foods we were selling to see if they have good or bad energies for the body. She showed me where to stand, and where not to stand to receive the most good energy from the earth. She taught me not to cross my arms while I’m standing, and shared with me the little wooden pendulum her husband made. I’m not about to get out and get my own pendulum, but I ate it up. I loved that she was sharing what she loved with me, and that she saw me.
During the past weeks, we’ve met up a few times on the park benches in the city center after volunteering. I head there to eat my lunch before going to the library, and when I’m about finished she arrives and sits and rests on her walk home. We chat. It often is very similar to the previous conversations because she forgets she’s already asked me what I’m researching in the library, or how long I’ll be here. But I don’t mind. It helps me say it better the second time. And without fail, somewhere during the conversation, she takes my hand and looks me in the eye, and says “We can look each other in the eye. I’m so glad we met.” We had to say goodbye today. My last day is Monday, and she won’t be there. I am so glad we met, too Simone. Thank you for seeing me.