I had just walked in from a day of wandering the narrow, busy streets. Feet sore and a little homesick, I was glad to be in the room where her students stayed. Frying sounds crept from the kitchen, and I couldn’t help but to think it was fried chicken.
In March 2009, I applied for a Texas Tech faculty-led summer abroad trip. Although I had not taken the prerequisite course, French 1507, I was accepted. Thrilled, I flipped through high school French books and even bought a computer program to help me relearn three years of high school French. I did not realize I did not know much of the language until the time was too late.
The smell of the chicken carried me to her kitchen. Definitely, fried chicken. I asked her in broken French, “What’s for supper?” She answers too quickly for me to understand, so I nod and prepare for my feast. When I am called, I join my host mom at the table, just us.
The application for the program includes a section regarding host families. Children, pets and transportation factor into where you will live for the next month. I was not picky about my family, as long as they taught me to cook. I was paired with Claudine Lopez, a 50-something-year-old woman. Claudine, “my lady” as I so gingerly called her, cooked most nights. Cheesy potatoes, mussels and pizza were served to me, along with several unfamiliar dishes.
One look at my “chicken”, and I realize the food was not what I expected it to be. I poked and prodded, until my host mom asked if I knew what the dish was.
Claudine was a mother and grandmother. Her two bedroom, one bathroom apartment was enough space for a shitzu named Gypsy, a foreign student and herself. I had a sinking feeling that the dog did not like visitors when I first arrived. Tired and doubled over with broken luggage, I followed Claudine into the apartment. Gypsy yelped and jumped, tugging at my long sweater. Throughout my stay, he constantly barked and nipped at me.
Adorning walls and cluttering shelves, “my lady” had knick-knacks from countries I had never been to: China, Russia, Australia. One night after a Mother’s Day dinner of moules frites, a mussel and French fry specialty of Southern France, she introduced me to her family through pictures. Widowed, she took up the hobby of hosting foreign students, all of which apparently spoke better French than I did.
I had no clue what was sitting in front of me. She signaled me to try a bite. A little mushy, but definitely breaded and fried. That’s nothing new to me. She asked again if I knew what it was. Disappointed it wasn’t my desired dish, I shook my head, no. She explained what it was so rapidly, I didn’t catch on. Sensing my confusion, she said “Vache, comprene?” Nodding, yes, “vache” means cow. Then, she pointed to her forehead, and I connected the dots. That mushy pile was cow brain.
Not my first choice of dinner by any means, I stared at my plate with the brown-encrusted mound of gray matter, thin lines of blue and red weaving throughout. I tried not to look as disgusted as I felt, and with a smile, I took another bite.
My host mom was a stern woman with little patience and no sense of the English language. I often found making dinner conversation difficult because she didn’t speak English and I have a lose grasp on the French language. We made shallow conversation about the day and tomorrow. I would tell her what I learned in class, because although I was in this beautiful place, I still had to attend class.
The 13 other students and I would congregate at the Institut Mediterraneen de Langues/Services, IMLS for short. But after three hours of class, we were free to explore the city. I often found myself at Café Royal, slurping hot espresso and writing about the passersby.
The people in Montpellier were as inspiring as the architecture and scenery. The homeless muddied the streets near La Comedie, Montpellier’s main plaza. Here, a fountain of the Three Graces stood in the foreground of the city’s opera house. Streets jutting from La Comedie were shadowed by multiple storied apartments and stores. The fast and efficient tram ran up and down these narrow streets, startling the city’s visitors. The other students and I often would catch the tram to shopping malls, the English-speaking pubs, or the beach. A 25 kilometer trip to the beach would ensure a day of fun.
Stocking up at the local Monoprix with snacks and Malibu, we loaded onto the tram for a breezy day at the beach. When we saw the rolling sands and naked bodies, we knew we had arrived at a French beach. Men and women of all ages were shameless in their imprudent displays on the crowded land. The soft sand was sprinkled with cigarette butts and vibrant shells. The cool Mediterranean Sea waved us over to its turning waters. There were no sharks, fish or jellyfish to be seen in this salty sea. Ice cream vendors circled like buzzards around the burning bodies. Naked children shoved money into the hands of the ice cream cart owner and ran away with a milky-sweet stickiness running down their chins.
One strawberry sunburn later, I was back at my apartment in town. Claudine looked horrified by my sun-streaked skin, and she offered to help. The short woman stretched up to a cabinet in her kitchen and retrieved red wine vinegar. Not knowing how to ask what she was doing, I complied as she led me onto the balcony. The smell of the vinegar made my head spin as she poured it on my raspberry shoulders. After a night of feeling stiff with vinegar, my sunburn had nearly vanished. No peeling, just a tickled pink tint.
Claudine and I felt a silent respect for one another. My part-time mentor and personal chef helped with my homework and even encouraged me to stay out at night with my friends. I knew she felt frustrated by our language barrier, but she stayed patient. Although her cooking was unfamiliar, I was grateful. I ate the fried cow brains, covering them in mashed potatoes. I finished with a laborious smile, and she seemed pleased that I had finished my meal.