About five years ago, maybe six, I did something that people tell you to never -- never, ever -- do. That would be meeting someone through a casual internet forum exchange; maybe two or three exchanges and then invite them into your home…without knowing anything about them. It happened so casually and easily that I almost didn’t realize it at the time. The result being that I had a stranger coming from about 5,000 miles away who could not speak English and we would be spending the better part of a week together. When I mentioned this to my daughter her head almost exploded….”What were you thinking?” Okay…I get it. Maybe he is a serial killer. Maybe he’s an international fugitive looking for a place to hide out.
The person, I most often just called him “Denis from France”, is about my age and lives in the west of France, in Brittany, and has a little truck garden where he grows and sells vegetables in retirement. The garden is big enough that he has a smallish Farmall tractor. He was once a high ranking police officer before retirement and has an obsession for old rock and roll music and musicians. He is divorced and has a high school age son. I didn’t see any red flags. We had things in common --- same age, both retired, both with a criminal justice background, both single, both like old rock and roll, both have a kid. The fact that I don’t speak French and we couldn’t easily communicate didn’t seem like that much of a problem.
We met on the internet almost by accident. He was asking questions on a forum that I sometimes visit and I supplied the answers. The next thing I knew, he was on his way. The deed was done and he was coming. The town where I lived at the time, Jefferson City, Missouri, was not exactly a cosmopolitan hot spot. I don’t have a clear understanding of what French people do from day to day. I’ve never been to France. What were we going to do? On a positive note, he was coming in October; a pretty time to visit.
As it turns out, Denis was going to attend a few old rocker concerts and my visit was sort of a way to spend time between these concerts and see parts of the country. He has a way of worming his way into the concert roadie brotherhood. He shows up a day or so before the concert and won’t leave so they give him something to do and he gets to hob-nob with Leon Russel or whoever. These old rock stars don’t have what you would call a security detail. If they tell him to go away he pretends (perhaps?) to not get the message and there aren’t many roadies who can speak French.
So, a day or so before he arrived I got a message that he was going to stay at a local motel and not at my home. Okay…whatever works will be fine. We made plans for me to pick him up and we would go to see the local sights…such as they were. I got to the motel – one of those where the rooms open to the outside parking lot. I knocked on the motel door and it opened and a tremendous cloud of smoke billowed from the room out into the parking lot. I almost jumped back from the door. Denis appeared through the fog. Yikes – I didn’t know someone could smoke that much and live. We made our introductions the best that we could and started off on our adventure.
Denis carries a fat French-English dictionary with him wherever he goes. We spent four days together and our communication was very odd with lots of confusion and misunderstandings. Much of our time was spent thumbing through the dictionary pages looking up words. I can't even pronounce French words in a way that he could understand what I was saying so half the time I ended up pointing to words in the dictionary. Denis was a little better with English but not much. English has words with origins in French and I figured that there would be a few words that we would have almost in common. Unfortunately, sometime after the Battle of Hastings there has been a conceptual change in some of those words. We had to resort to sign language quite often.
I tried some chitchat. It was slow going but we managed. I tried to explain that Missouri was initially settled by the French which explained the various French place names but he was not impressed by that revelation. I asked if he had ever been to Quebec – of course not. Why would he ever want to go to Quebec? He also had never ventured anywhere out of France other than to the US. I mentioned that some of my ancestors were French Walloon Huguenots. His reaction to that was not good….I take it that Walloons are not highly respected in his part of France. I felt that this was going downhill very quickly.
My little town is in Missouri’s old German wine country so I figured I would take Denis to a local winery. French people like wine…right? Maybe I chose the wrong winery. We sat outside in the autumn afternoon sipping the local wine along with a plate of some snacks – cheese, an apple, crackers, etc. It was a beautiful day and I was having a good time. Denis took two sips of the wine and would not drink any more of it. The best I could tell was that he didn’t think it was very good. It dawned on me later that perhaps alcohol was not on his list of things to drink but I would not have known given our limited communication skills. There are a few hiking trails on the winery grounds that go along the Missouri River bluff so we took off on a hike with me trying to explain about Lewis and Clark. The trail we were on ended at a place that was noted and described in their journals back in 1804. This is all hot stuff if you are from this general locality and the local history starts around 1700 but to Denis 1804 was like last Wednesday.
Denis had a rental car so when we were not together touring the wonderful sights he was out on his own. He met a woman in a local café who was originally from France and they had breakfast together a couple days. He seemed happy to have that connection.
He was visiting in late October and everything was geared up for Halloween. Although I don't do any decorating, people in my town went all out decorating their houses and yards for Halloween. Some folks had pretend tombstones in their yards, skeletons or cobwebs hanging out of trees and witches flying on broomsticks. I think Denis understood the concept of Halloween but was a little confused by the decorations and the weirdness (as am I, frankly). Because much of how we communicated was non-verbal, it was hard to gauge his reaction. This was not his first visit to the US and he would usually come in October and November. I’m sure he had encountered this before but it seemed like he was a little disturbed by the craziness.
We were literally walking through trenches and crunching on spent shell casings underfoot while looking at displays and old military equipment. There were sound effects and flashes of light. Denis was so impressed that he called his son in France to tell him about it right then and there. At least I think that's what he was talking about. I thought things were looking up…Denis was enjoying his visit.
Well, what else can we do…this is October in the Midwest. I took him to a corn maze, one of the Midwest’s finest autumn traditions. He had no real understanding of what we were doing because I failed miserably at trying to explain it. I guess they don’t have corn mazes in Brittany. Once there he was mildly amused as we wandered around through a maze of seven foot high rows of corn. We could hear voices of other people lost in the corn but couldn’t see them. It took us a while to find our way out but we did and were presented with an official certificate of completion. This was a working farm where city people go to pick out their own pumpkins or apples and they have all sorts of gourds and squash. Kids can go on pony rides or hayrides. At one point Denis got excited because he saw a tractor that was the exact year, make and model of his Farmall tractor at home. I thought that he would break down in tears. I took his picture by the tractor. He seemed very pleased.
So, at the end of the visit he said his goodbye, in English, and I said 'Bon Voyage' and he went on to his next stop in Kansas City. I guess we managed to break through the language barrier (somewhat) but got hung up on the culture barrier a couple times. All in all it was a good experience. I lived to tell about it and so did he.
A few days later I got a message from Denis. He visited Kansas City and thought it had more to offer than Jefferson City. I guess I can't argue with that. Denis comes back to the US for other concert visits almost every year but he always steers clear of central Missouri for some reason. I admire Denis and his perseverance. He knows what he likes and does what he wants to do. He has no qualms about travelling alone and that is another thing we have in common. It has been several years now since his visit and I hear from him every year around New Year’s wishing me a pleasant, healthy and happy new year. I do the same. He writes in English and I respond in French.