Lesson at the Laverie
The elderly woman startled me. I’d just begun tossing my dirty clothes into a washing machine inside Laverie Automatique, a not-too-chic Laundromat in the French ski town of Chamonix, and I was absorbed in the task. I’d noticed the woman when I walked in. She had short gray hair, a warm, weathered face and big round glasses that dwarfed dark eyes. She’d been reading on the lone bench next to an empty laundry bag and a whirring machine, and she’d looked tired. Then, to my surprise, she was suddenly standing behind me, rattling off something in French. Judging by her hand gestures, which included arms waving and fingers pointing, her message was of great importance. Unfortunately, I had confined my foreign language studies to Spanish, and I didn’t understand a word.
“Parlez-vous anglais, madame?” I mustered, looking her way as I tossed a sock into the machine.
I grinned, shrugged and threw my hands in the air to respectfully convey my language deficiency.
“Breetish?” she asked in a halting French-English hybrid.
She smiled and planted herself back on the bench. I imagined she had tired of fighting the language barrier and had given up. I tossed the last of my socks into the washer. But then the woman began anew. She spoke slowly this time, laboring to make herself understood. She furrowed her brow. She tilted her head. When she finished, she jerked her head forward, as if to punctuate her remarks with an exclamation point.
I shook my head helplessly, unsure of what to do or say. I knew nothing about this woman, but I was moved by her intensity and wanted to understand what she was saying. Maybe she was happy because her only daughter had just given birth. Perhaps her husband had died and she needed a compassionate ear. Or maybe she had simply discovered a fabulous fabric softener, new-and-improved, and she wanted to spread the good word.
I recalled my first trip to Europe as a wide-eyed 22-year-old, eager to engage anyone I could in conversation. Time and again, in France and Germany and Austria and Czechoslovakia, I ran up against a seemingly impenetrable language barrier, and it filled me with frustration. I cursed my parochial American education, and when I tired of that, I went even further. “Why can’t we all just speak a single language?” I wrote in my journal. “I don’t care which one, but let’s pick one. The world is too small these days for so many languages.”
Almost a decade later, having devoted many months to improving my Spanish skills but still lacking all but the most basic French phrases. I was equally frustrated. What was she saying? I settled on the same disheartening conclusion I had arrived at all too often during my travels abroad: I would never know.
I tried to decipher a hand-written sign on the wall explaining how to procure a cup of powdered detergent. Before I could dig for my francs, however, the woman leapt to her feet and grabbed her own bottle of liquid soap. To my surprise, she popped open the detergent lid on my machine, held the bottle aloft and poured in a big glob, all the while muttering something in French.
“Merci beaucoup,” I said.
I dropped several francs into the coin slot and the machine came to life. I sat down beside her.
“Je m’apelle Jim,” I managed. “Et vouz?”
“Chamonix?” I asked, wondering if she lived in town.
“Non,” she said. “Lyon.”
I pointed to myself.
We struggled through a few questions and answers. I heard her repeat the phrase “mon fil” several times, which my dictionary defined as, “my son.” As best I could determine Jeanine’s son was a skier who lived in Chamonix, and she was visiting him for a few days. She thought that I looked like him. Indeed, when she pulled his wet Levis from the washer, I saw they were my size: 32-34. I pointed to my own waist and offered a Spanish word, hoping the French might be similar.
Jeanine laughed, nodding as if to say that she understood. Her eyes gleamed. We grew quiet, both, I think, weary from the labored exchange. Time slowed. Through the front window, we watched women and men stroll past snowboard shops and fondue joints, bundled in scarves and fleece sweaters and wool caps against a late-afternoon chill that had settled over the valley. Hours earlier, I’d looked up from Chamonix’s main street to see Mont Blanc, the Alps’ tallest mountain, shrouded in mist. Now, I imagined a heavy snow falling on its brooding, icy reaches. I found myself smiling, glad to be doing laundry inside Laverie Automatique, sharing part of the afternoon with Jeanine, whoever she was.
When my machine came to a halt, I began pulling damp clothes from the washer and transferring them to a dryer across the room. On my second trip, trying to carry too big a bundle, I dropped a pair of underwear. Jeanine shot me a sympathetic glance. Before I could reach for the shorts, she popped up and grabbed them, happily tossing them into the dryer with a flip of her wrist. As if that weren’t enough, she grabbed the last soggy handful from my machine, completing the job. I couldn’t hold back a big grin.
“Merci,” I said.
She smiled and nodded.
Jeanine’s dryer soon sputtered to a stop. One by one, she removed the shirts and pants, folded them and stacked them carefully in her bag. I pointed to the pile and offered to help, but she waved me away. Moments later, with her laundry bag full, she tugged on her overcoat.
I wanted to tell Jeanine that she was a generous soul, and that, even if it was nothing to her, I appreciated the simple warmth that she extended to me. I wanted to wish her well, and to ask her to give my best to her son. I wanted to explain that doing laundry abroad had never been quite so much fun. I knew my French would never cut it.
Yet I wasn’t filled with the same frustration I’d felt so many times before. Jeanine didn’t let our language differences get in the way of her generosity. In fact, she seemed to understand the old axiom about actions speaking louder than words, louder than incomprehensible foreign words, even when that meant picking up a stranger’s underwear. I hadn’t learned much of Jeanine’s biography, I realized, but I had learned a whole lot about something that transcends language, something more important: heart.
I stood and smiled and offered Jeanine a handshake.
“Merci beaucoup,” I said.
“Merci,” she said. Adding a warm “au revoir,” she strolled out of Laverie Automatique, into the cool Alpine air.