Behind any good story is a good cast of characters. The characters grow and develop, showing shades of their true selves in small encounters along the way. Well, the characters in my neighborhood do the same—we just show shades of ourselves through nods, smiles, and broken French … and sometimes frosted partitions.
There is a really nice older woman who lives in our building. Actually, I don’t even know her name. I just call her Madame and that seems to work. I first met her not long after moving in when I was still wearing my daughter Addi in the Baby Bjorn when walking Tycho (my dog). She must have been checking her mail because she held the door open for me in the vestibule. Madame smiled and cooed to the baby. Even though I didn’t understand a lick of French, I knew she was nice. Friend, not foe. You can just tell, even though I didn’t understand the words. Madame would launch into a round of “Sshee, hheee, hoh, hoh” sprinkled with a “mon petite amour” in a distinct voice that she saved only for babies—and dogs.
We would ride the elevator together, bid each other a good day, and I was always left with a warm fuzzy feeling and the smell of her perfume. I don’t want to call it “old lady perfume” because I really like Madame, but, well … that’s just the best way to describe it. Very flowery—with impressive potency—it often lingers even when Madame is nowhere to be seen. I sometimes smell it in the elevator and know she has been there. If she went missing, I’d put a scratch-and-sniff of her perfume on a milk carton.
Now, again, I don’t want to be mean because I really do like Madame, but, I had a most unfortunate encounter with her recently. I was bouncing back from a crisp morning walk with Tycho when I caught a glimpse of Madame enjoying the beautiful morning on her terrace—her lower half blocked by the frosted glass. I tried to catch her attention to wave, when her phone rang and she stood up to answer it.
A chance wrong-place-wrong-time encounter. That exact moment when I looked up at Madame, I caught a side view through the open railing portion of the terrace and discovered that Madame was only wearing a shirt.
The image was so brief, but so scarring. My retinas burned. Tycho seemed a little affected too.
We saw our little Madame in her old-lady granny pants!
I suppose I should be glad she was at least wearing granny pants but I just can’t look at her the same way now. The only saving grace is that she doesn’t know that I saw her in her unmentionables.
I was recounting this unfortunate incident to a friend when she told me that you will often see old ladies walking around on their terraces in Geneva in their bra and panties when it gets really hot. In their underthings! I don’t recall ever seeing that in a travel advisory. The prudish American in me—my knee jerk reaction—says to keep it covered. But, I think there is something liberating in the way that they don’t care. Let it air out, sister!
I now get nervous when I see her in the morning while walking Tycho. My plan is to keep my eyes averted, but she is so enthusiastic when I wave that I try to give a quick wave and smile and keep walking. Yesterday she produced a giant fluffy white cat. She came to the edge of the terrace and made the cat wave to Tycho. Tycho was enchanted and gazed longingly up at the furry friend. I was just nervous, staring at the top of her head to avoid looking down. Anyway, I played along and waved and gave my “salut!” to the cat. I may have even thrown in an enthusiastic très magnifique! Who knows … I just wanted out of the situation.
Madame has come to my rescue on occasion too. I was out with Tycho—letting him run off the leash, which is typically against my better judgment. He proved my better judgment right, and would not come when called. Seriously, the dog can give “high fives” but will not come when called. I wonder if we missed a step in our training. Anyway, Madame pulled the “shee, shee, hoh, hoh” stuff with Tycho and he ate it up. He ran right to her, tail wagging, and full of energy—like I hadn’t been standing there for ten minutes pleading to him to come.
Madame is not the only character in my neighborhood mini-drama. There’s also Mrs. Tee-Lou. Tee-Lou is the name of this lady’s dog, and of course, it’s the phonetic pronunciation. He’s a good dog, about three-quarters the size of Tycho, with cute brown markings and a fluffy, “perky” tail. Mrs. Tee-Lou has tried to have several conversations with me—usually pretty one-sided. I understand more and more of what she has to say, which is encouraging. But it is pretty frustrating because I just don’t have the vocabulary yet to really respond. I’m sure she is frustrated too. In fact, I think she has started avoiding me to escape the painful exchanges. I’d imagine that seeing me fumble about in my naked French is like seeing me in my unmentionables for her.
So far, she has informed us that we need a TV so I can hear French at home. She even told me that we could lease one, if we wanted. Thanks. I couldn’t explain to her that none of our American appliances worked here and that we were starting from scratch. And … I couldn’t explain that for me, gaining access to BBC Prime, MTV (in French!), and CNN came lower on the list than other major appliances. She persistently checked in though about the status of our TV and was pleased when we finally procured one, like she’d finally talked sense into me. We’ve talked about Roger Federer and his tennis glory—and an old tennis injury that she has. Apparently, she has injured her wrist and can no longer play. And, she has told me that my dog is fat. Well, at least that’s what I think she said. I hope she was talking about my dog …
There are plenty of English speakers in the neighborhood too; it’s just that I understand everything that is being said, so the conversation seems more pedestrian. I love the mystery and intrigue that I can bring to the plotline with my French-speaking neighbors. Something about miming an adult conversation just cracks me up.
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