I’m sitting at a red light in Friday rush hour traffic. It’s a ridiculous time of day to be out and I know it, but here I am, stuck and fidgeting, when the cell phone sitting in the passenger seat rings.
I answer, pushing speaker phone.
“Hi Mom,” he says.
I’d been hoping he’d call home. He’s been in Switzerland for two weeks now. We’ve tried to coordinate our schedules on Skype and missed each other. this to ask a few questions.
“How are you? How is it? How’s the research going?” I ask.
International Study for College Students
I’m hungry for details; I know nothing at this point about his time in Switzerland.
He reassures me that he’s fine and he expects the research will be interesting. He begins to talk about particle physics – bombarding something with something else at some magical place called CERN. He moves on to a mention of 200 million events per second though I can’t for the life of me figure out what he’s referring to, but traffic is barely inching along and he sounds excited and happy.
Apparently 200 million events per second must be a good thing; whatever it is, he’s intrigued by the details that are over my head.
“It’s crazy expensive here,” he says. “So I’m doing my own cooking when I can, and now I know the words for rolling pin, pressure cooker, and food processor in French.” (Damn. I’m fluent but I don’t know those words. Note to self: Look up the words for rolling pin, pressure cooker, and food processor in French.)
“It’s also 10 degrees,” he adds.
I look at the temperature reading on my dashboard. It’s unusually warm. 60 degrees. I spare him that bit of information.
“So I went skiing in the Alps last weekend,” he says. “With my buddy from school who’s actually from here.”
“Wow,” I say, as the line of cars ahead of me begins to nudge forward at a faster pace. Now the phone is propped in my lap and I’m wondering what the Alps must be like beyond the pictures, the video clips, the movies I’ve seen.
I don’t ski. I don’t know Switzerland except to pass through and that was decades ago.
My son begins to speak of his weekend and I picture Jean-Claude Killy, and then 1969’s Downhill Racer with Robert Redford. I’m imagining mod fashions in primary colors, teased hair, Elke Sommer types, fur-trimmed jackets before the days of PETA.
“It was beautiful,” he says.
“Et ton franais ? Tout le monde parle franais ?”
We switch languages and continue in French. My kid is a little miffed that he has yet to use his French a great deal; he was fluent with a superb accent after a high school experience in Brittany. He’s annoyed that some of the special sessions he’s attending are taught in English rather than French, but his German is handy albeit basic, and he tells me – it isn’t “High German” they’re speaking, so it’s a stretch for him.
“Je ne suis pas oblig de parler tout le temps. Il faut faire un effort et j’y pense pas,” he says, explaining that he has to remind himself to speak French.
I tell him it’s certainly worth making the effort, since he’s living in an international city.
“Tu as raison,” he says, agreeing with me.
The Value of Language Immersion
I’m remembering how helpful the language immersion was for him a few years earlier, living with a French family. Though he’s older now, and studying as well as doing part-time work, I wish the opportunity to speak French and German was more regular.
As I hear the pleasure in his voice, it’s clear how much he enjoys Europe. How at home he feels.
“I need to go,” I tell him. “Traffic is moving.”
“We’ll Skype,” he says, and I wonder how to translate that into French. I guess I’ll add it to my list, along with rolling pin, pressure cooker, and food processor. I’m impressed that he was able to dig up those particular appliances. He’s a resourceful kid.
“Je t’aime,” I say.
“Moi aussi,” he answers, and I disconnect.
I look down at the phone in my lap. My son is a world away, so close for those few minutes, and then a world away, again. I recall my own year abroad at that age, the international experience that reinforced my independence and language fluency, the opening of doors, philosophies, opportunities.
Traffic starts to flow more easily now, and I smile again.
Swiss Alps image courtesy Flicker, http://www.flickr.com/photos/babasteve/6741434167/in/photostream/