A wee fender-bender in the neighborhood... well, that's one way to meet your neighbor! Read on in today's story column.
le choc (shok) n.m.
: impact, crash, bump; clash; shock
Toute culture naît du mélange, de la rencontre, des chocs. A l'inverse, c'est de l'isolement que meurent les civilisations. All cultures are born out of mingling, meetings and clashes. Conversely, civilizations die from isolation. --Octavio Paz
"C'était tout bête," as the French say. "It was so stupid," the accident I had at the end of my street. I had pulled up to the crooked T-intersection, slowing my car to a complete stop. Having looked left, then right, then left again, I pulled forward to turn, as I've done hundreds of times before.
I felt the impact before I even saw the car. A soft choc.* Like a bumper-car bump, nothing abrupt--no slammed brakes, no flying glass or screeching metal. I was well into my left turn when the right front-end of my car collided with the left side of the oncoming car.
Hit. No! Safe. Thanks. Neighbor. Mercedes! Insurance... English words running through a stupefied mind in the French countryside.
The victim, or "accidentée," (a neighbor) pulled her black Mercedes to the side of the road, just next to the old, slouching-over-the-lane mulberry tree, across from a field of hibernating vines. I followed, pulling up behind her car and turning off the engine. The neighbor got out of the driver's side. Her daughter got out of the passenger's side. I got out of my car and met them halfway.
I asked if they were okay and said that I was navrée, terribly sorry. They said they were fine, and that is when the woman began complaining about the damage: a shallow dent along the left side of her car, on the back passenger door....
The next day I travelled at a snail's pace down my street, stopping at the crooked T-intersection after putting on my turn-signal three houses back. I looked left, right, left, RIGHT, left again, and once more right, feeling more like a wide-eyed deer about to cross a firing range than a "bonus" driver with 20 years of bonne conduite* under her seat belt.
A few French blocks later, I pulled into the accidentée's driveway, convinced that I would flatten the rosemary bush or crush a garden lamp or even drive right into the swimming pool! I checked my rear-view mirror once again and saw Calamity tailgating me.
I rang the sonnette,* fidgeting with the insurance papers until the door opened. "Entrez," said the accidentée. Laundry--socks, undershirts, tea towels--was drying on an indoor étendoir* just behind the couch, which held stacks of neatly folded clothes. The tile floor invited bare feet to feel its cool, clean surface. Framed portraits of three smiling adolescents lined the hall.
As I followed the woman through the living room to the kitchen table--stopping when she stopped to flip off "Les Feux d'Amour"*--I slinked back with that intrusive, guilty feeling: she was missing the end of her soap opera (the mouth-dropping, what-will-the-heroine (or hero)-reply-tomorrow? cliffhanger part) because of my moment of inattention the day before.
I followed her to the kitchen table where she sat down. After some hesitation, I pulled out a chair and joined her, uninvited. I looked at the Frenchwoman who wore only a thin painted line of coal beneath each eye, her short, thick auburn hair neatly combed back. I thought about how many times I'd crossed her on the one-lane country road. I always pulled over, letting her and her stone face pass.
Why did I have to hit her? Why couldn't it have been the ever-souriant* hippy mec* in the beat-up truck? Or the shy, retired couple--he who always nods in appreciation and she who enthusiastically waves "Merci!"? I always pull over to let others pass, when I'm not busy denting passenger portes.*
At the kitchen table I notice that her insurance paperwork is complete. I spread out my papers across the table and begin reading through the French: Insurance company name; Address; Client number; Nature of accident... I hesitate before each blank space, mouthing the words to the questions.
"My husband usually does our paperwork," I admit, realizing I sound like one of those ousewives.
"I put this down for that one," the woman says, showing me an example. "Oh, merci," I say, and copy as many of her answers as I can get away with, minus insurance numbers and addresses.
"My daughter speaks English," she says, off the subject.
"Oh, really?" I reply. Looking up, I see her face has softened.
"Does she baby-sit?" I say.
"She loves to!" Before long we are exchanging phone numbers, with a promise to call if I need help with the kids. If I need help...
For a moment, I wonder what a conversation would have been like around the hippy-mec's table, or at the retired couple's. Who knows when destiny will have us crossing paths? (Hopefully for a cup of sugar and not a dented door). For now, I warm to the stone (make that *soft*) face of the accidentée, glad for the chance to get to know my misunderstood neighbor, despite the circumstances.
le choc = impact; la bonne conduite (f) = good driving (record); la sonnette = doorbell; un étendoir = washing line (here, a free-standing metal rack); Les Feux d'Amour = The Young and the Restless (soap opera); souriant(e) = smiling; le mec = guy; la porte = door
Listen: hear the word 'choc' pronounced: Download choc2.wav
Expressions & Terms:
le pare-chocs = bumper, fender
les prix chocs = incredible prices
le choc culturel = culture shock
le choc septique = toxic shock
résiste au(x) choc(s) = shock-resistant
tenir le choc = to cope
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