The following blog post was written by Rebecca A. Eckland, an AFS Returnee who studied abroad in France in 1999. Today, Rebecca is a professional writer and accomplished athlete who mentors at-risk youth through cycling programs.
At (barely) seventeen years old, I found myself alone on a busy platform in Montparnasse (a train depot in Paris) waiting for the TGV which would take me to a town where I would meet my host family for the first time. French voices around me were a cacophony of vowels; sentences with no pauses between the words.
While I stood on the train platform, my reason for going to France seemed abstract and nebulous. After school programs in grade school introduced me to the language; my stepfather’s family was from the Basque country. Yet, it was my hometown with less than 10,000 residents which reminded me through its smallness that my voice was small along with it. I think, in the end, I went to France to try to learn how to say something meaningful.
When I arrived in the little town of Saumur (200 miles southwest of Paris) I met my host family: dressed in black pea coats to guard against the January cold, the Gouzy’s waved and smiled at the short, blonde teenager who blinked a lot, and said very little.
That evening, we took a walking tour and my host-father, Claude, attempted to explain the significance of the “old stone” (“les vieilles pierres”) from which the buildings were constructed. I didn’t know that the word for stone was “pierre” (like the proper name, “Pierre.”) At the time, I wondered why it was so important to hear about this Pierre guy, and why he was so old. It wasn’t until three months into my stay that I realized my mistake.
It was only a word, after all. But that day, and every day that followed, the weight of words settled in. Not to know the difference between a man and a stone is a disadvantage in life; words have their own unique power, but one that is only felt when you simply do not— or, cannot— grasp them.
Nearly twenty years later, I am a professional writer and a competitive cyclist. I am a Technical/Proposal Writer at Rite of Passage, a company which creates and manages charter schools, community outreach and residential treatment academies for vulnerable children. I am also a writer for a cause-based literary agency, The Parsons Company, and co-organizer for a literary reading series called Literary Arts & Wine. As an adult, language has literally become the center of my personal and professional life when I’m not on the bike, or helping others to learn to love cycling like I do.
Before I lived in France, I had been only an athlete. In France, however, daily life taught me (word by word—sometimes by misunderstood words) that language is an expression of time and culture, nuanced ever so slightly by people speaking it. Take, for example, the French word “étrangère.” It is related to the English word “estranged” and means, literally “foreigner.” The meaning, though, is a tangle of ideas: “strange,” “outside,” and “otherness.” It is a word that has the power to allude to all of this, and suggests that in order to be a foreigner one must not only be “outside” a national boundary, but also the invisible ideological, cultural and familial boundaries that bind us to who we believe we are.
This was at odds with French words I learned like “chez,” a word that has no literal English translation, but that makes whatever word follows it mean “the home or the place of.” So, “chez moi” means, roughly “home.” It is a word that can make the world your home, or erase the sense of the English “home” singularity.
“Chez moi” in France was the Gouzy’s high-ceilinged and sky-lit room up the spiral staircase that overlooked other home-tops. “Chez moi” in the United States was a room in a white house that overlooked miles of Nevada high-desert steppe, a vast emptiness where home equated to “homestead”— and there was no possibility of more than one.
Months into my exchange, I sat on the decayed ramparts of Saumur’s chateau which overlooked the Loire River on a day it didn’t rain. I began to understand that words are the relics we leave behind, that are picked up by friends, families and strangers. These are our compass pointing to the cardinal directions of our lives. It is Claude explaining “Pâques,” Easter— with images of Easter Island from a musty encyclopedia; it is Antoinette taking me with her to the Saturday market. It was their faces at the dinner table, their eyes sparkling as they told me about the places they’d been and the people they had met.
I wouldn’t know until much later that my host parents formed the social foundation for their community. I didn’t realize it then, but they made me a part of their world as much as they could— as I struggled to understand, they wrapped me in, tightly.
This winter, I lost both my host-parents to their respective battles with cancer. I had always wanted to return as an elite athlete and as a published author to say, (finally) “I understand.” But in every way, I was too late.
Yet, words, like life, find meaning in the details. The house in France had had a small, empty plot in the back that, one day, I began to weed. Years after my return to the States, Antoinette wrote to me, with a picture of the flower garden they had planted there.
This year, I rode next to one of our kids in our program for at-risk youth on a 72-mile ride. At mile 60, he told me: “I can’t make it.” I made a game out of the remaining twelve miles, overcoming other riders, coasting down the hills. A mere quarter mile from the finish line, he asks if we can “sprint it in.” We did; he turned to me and thanked me.
It is a small moment; the words, more than the rest, remain.By Rebecca A. Eckland, MFA, MA, MA
Athlete | Writer
Questions for Rebecca? Email [email protected] to get in touch!