“Comme une vache!”
René exclaimed with a hearty chuckle. He repeated the words, Anglais, une vache, and tu
comprends? He laughed again. Perhaps René thought his comment was very clever, or,
perhaps he was laughing at the awkward, perplexed look I had on my face.
René was determined to make me understand why his supposed joke was funny. He
exclaimed, for the umpteenth time: une vache, a cow! Was he making a stereotypically
French, thus Anglophobic, joke on how the English are all cows? He did not seem to the
type to be bitter at anything, so I decided to move on from using fixed stereotypes as an
easy explanation, but the more he explained with his broken English, the more baffled I
In the summer of 2008, I was briefly staying over at René’s in Montpellier, France. The
TV and the books were, of course, of no use. René had a large, dusty desktop in his
basement, and the Internet was so slow that it could only be fit for sending emails, when
it was absolutely necessary. The only friend, or source of entertainment, I had was René’s
Her name is [mɔ’kjɑ]. Her name will always be a sound, and never a written word, for
I never had René spell her name out for me. Perhaps her name is Mocha; it is my best
guess in making sense of the short, clipped succession of phones, Moc-Kya. The day of
my arrival she gave birth to three kittens: one soft white, one blue-grey, and one brown
with stripes, exactly like its mother.
[mɔ’kjɑ] nervously watches me from the sofa as I feed the kittens warm milk. Suddenly,
I hear a stranger in the house. I am only slightly relieved to see that it was a black and
white stray cat.
His one eye is murky grey, dull and unresponsive, probably some glorious scar of a
past battle he had won in a backyard of this peaceful neighborhood. His other eye is a
piercing yellow, far from kind and striking against his coarse, dusty black fur. Only a
title of “General” would suit him. (If anyone had the right to give a stray cat a title.) He
must have come in through the small flap door René installed for [mɔ’kjɑ]. From afar, he
checks on [mɔ’kjɑ] and the kittens: a menacing fighter, yet a concerned father. He licks
some water from [mɔ’kjɑ]’s bowl and quietly disappears.
For a few days, [mɔ’kjɑ] and I maintain a distance in the respective corners of the dark
house. The thick wooden window panels are kept shut during the day to keep the house
cool from the heat of the Mediterranean summer. The first to break the silent distance
between the two of us is she. While I am carefully rinsing the dishes and the glass I
used for breakfast, [mɔ’kjɑ] purrs and Miaous. I continue with my task; I do not realize
that she has been addressing me for some time. She continues until I give my attention.
[mɔ’kjɑ] slowly sashays across the living room, glancing back, time to time, to check if I
am following her. She reaches a door and stands on her hind legs to scratch it, but only so
briefly so that I would know that it is a gesture, a sign. I comprehend, and take her order.
As soon as I open the door she slinks through the small opening to start clawing the old
rug to sharpen her nails.
Our daily routine continues without a glitch until a day I decide to make a Korean-style
crêpe with some poireaux (spring onions) and seiche (cuttlefish). She sneaks up to me,
and signals that it is that time of the day. Delighted in my improvement in the feline
language, I hurry ahead of her and open the door, just to find that she is nowhere. I call
out her name, but I only hear the flap door swing to answer. She must have changed her
mind. I resignedly wander back to the kitchen.
A large piece of seiche is missing, and some other pieces are left lying on the floor, the
translucent flesh chewed to an opaque white. What a mistake I have made, thinking that I
have learned to speak cat, when I have overlooked the most important code: never trust a
cat with fish!
I took a day off from playing butler for [mɔ’kjɑ], opening doors for her and delivering
her morning milk. I got myself on a bus to Avignon, to see the papal palace and the Pont
du Gard, but mostly to get out of the static house verging on ennui.
For a late lunch on my way back, I chose a small bistro, the patio bustling with people
and their afternoon debates over endless chain smoking and a tin jug of bitter-black
coffee. I was seated uncomfortably close to a balding man with gaily-flushed pink
cheeks. The waiter came by, and in order to put an end to my never-ending indecision, he
pointed toward the menu, and repeated: très, très bon. I nodded and muttered something
in pseudo-French that would be enough to make him understand that I would venture for
Fifteen minutes later the waiter clunked down in front of me a steaming bowl of tomato-
brown broth. Next to the bowl was a slice of toasted baguette with some pieces of cheese
haphazardly sprinkled on top. I swished the soup around with a large metal spoon to see
what was in it—some chunks of tomatoes, onions, and fish floated about, bobbing and
sinking. I took a spoonful of the still hot broth, got a whiff of the savory odor, and moved
the spoon towards my salivating mouth. At that point, the soup was perhaps not très, très
bon, but très bon enough.
I was about to take a second spoonful when the man sitting next to me leaned over with
a horrified face, shouting, non non non! He rattled on in his native tongue, but as he saw
my quizzical look, he grabbed my plate, dunked the baguette in the soup, and took my
spoon from my hand to push and drown the bread and cheese. With the spoon, he cut a
piece of the baguette drenched with soup, on top of which languid cheese lay akimbo,
and returned the full spoon over to me. Voilà, his fury subsided and his smile revealed the
satisfaction of restoring order and justice in this world. I hesitantly took a bite. Although
I did not want to admit that his abrupt intrusion into my peaceful lunch actually did any
good, I could not help but thank him for letting me have the real soupe de poissons, très,
très bon. Merci monsieur, Merci.
It was only after I came back from Montpellier that I learned that comme une vache was
an idiomatic phrase. René meant to say that he spoke English comme une vache—like
a cow—as in, his English is not very good. However, it was because I spoke French
like a cow that I could throw away my habit of only paying attention to comprehensible
utterances, and shutting off the rest.
It is when street signs and verbal directions come to mean nothing, I must attend to
the color of the painted windowsill, the direction of the shadow, and the face of the
storekeeper to guide me through the labyrinth of Montpellier’s medieval streets.
In my memory, the beach that I visited with René is not confined to the common
linguistic bracket of the static word plage (beach), but an ongoing scene in that particular
movement in time and space, of rose-pink and cobalt watercolor with gold specks of the
setting sun, the warm body of water gently stroking the shore, combing the soft beige
granules of sand, whispering an ancient lullaby. Every apricot hanging in Rene’s garden
is not a generalized sensation of a usual abricot, but edible flesh dripping with juice,
each one unique with a different flavor and a texture of its own: tender and honey-sweet,
crisp and tart. Even every Enchanté accompanied by the three bisous come to me as
expressions of true delight of meeting another, rather than a mechanical reflex, a hollow
shell of social etiquette, which a Nice to meet you somehow became.
In a place devoid of the tongue I speak, every utterance, reversely, becomes white
noise. It is first fearful, this sudden inability to comprehend. However, as time passes, it
becomes a comforting silence. Through this silence, I was able to wholeheartedly wade in
the world with a pleasurable naïveté, taking it in, as is, comme une vache.