Exchange of services (L´Échange des services)

Zoe and tea

(It is one of the phrases that can be directly taken from English into French :)

“It sounds rather suspicious,” Zoe told her boyfriend when he came home with the idea. He had found an announcement of a lady suggesting an exchange of language practice conversations – French and English.

“Well, your hesitation only shows the worries of your mind.” He was always quick at arguing, and now added an anecdote: “It reminds me, once a biology teacher asked us what was the organ of love? Some of my classmates got red, and he said: You see, I meant the heart, the organ of love. All depends on where you go to seek inside you.” He looked at her in a bemused way.

“Oh, com´on, you mean my thoughts are dirty if I find the exchange of services a suspicious offer?” Zoe was not easily put into a corner in such conversations.

“No, of course not, I am teasing you,” he gave her a little nudge to the shoulder and left the kitchen where they were seated over cups of tea. A friendly, more than a lover´s gesture.

And… a week later Zoe was sitting in a little tea-room, the author of the announcement suggested for the first appointment. It was at the St. Boniface square, a fashionable part of town these days. The house was a lovely art nouveau one, with original tiles, fine details of doors and windows in two adjoin parlor rooms. They were painted in sober chocolate and green, the background music was a violoncello composition, a Bach cello suit most probably. The second room was equipped with six little round tables, three of them occupied when she entered. An English gentleman in the corner was sipping the drink his country is associated with, two girls in another corner had their heads bent over some papers. Zoe took a seat by the backyard window closed over with an olive green curtain, the whole room was semi-dark, calm, smells of tea and coffee gentle enough not to overwhelm the senses. She took an order of a Guatemala espresso and waited. In the email, her date said it would be easy to recognize each other in the tea room called Chez Florian. The square was close to the African quarter Matonge, but at the same time quite distant from the eternal fuss and turmoil of its grocery shops, hairdresser´s parlors, snack and cafés. Here, around the square, it was chic, bourgeois, and almost empty at the time of the day: four o´clock in the afternoon, an ordinary Thursday in winter. It started to rain when she opened the door at the Florian.

A few minutes later, a tiny woman stepped into the tea room, her black hat and dark red coat glistening with drops of rain and Zoe knew it was her. Madame W., of course, it must be her. Zoe stood up, which was not an easy movement to perform at the tiny table. She felt so tall next to her new échange des services acquaintance. Mme. W´s palm almost disappeared in Zoe´s when they shook hands. The waiter, a young and polite man came hastily to take the coat of the newly arrived. They greeted each other as old friends, Mme. W. nodded when he asked if she desired her usual. They sat down, Zoe felt better when her tall posture was not so dominating in the space.

“So, how do you find this place?” Mme. W. asked and smiled a very little smile. Her fair hair was cropped very short, a mixture of dark blond and silver. A turtleneck red woolen jumper, a grey jacket over it, 34 French size must be too big for her, Zoe thought.

“I do,” Zoe said.

“I have to tell you; you are not the only one with whom I perform the exchange of services. I´ve got another two people. It´s a great way to practice the language, but it´s much more.”

Silence. Zoe was supposed to wait for the “much more” to be discovered by herself in the due course.

“On first two or three times, each of us will only listen to the other. Before one can start speaking a language, it´s great to listen to its sound as much as possible. A subconscious mind will get the flow, the melody, the rhythm, and then rely on that later, when you start speaking. So, you and I will take turns telling our stories. After, there will be time to ask questions. But first we will order a dessert with the tea.”

She looked at the empty espresso cup Zoe had in front of her – rather disapprovingly:

“One comes to discover tea here, not to drink an ordinary coffee,” she said. The moment the waiter appeared with a little tea-pot and a cup on the trailer.

“What´s the suggestion for today?” Mme. W. asked him. He named a few – apparently names of desserts – too swift and elaborated his language for Zoe to understand, and Mme. W. took a choice independently of her. The waiter nodded and went.

“We will have a lemon-raspberry meringue to start with. Sweet stuff boosts the language learning process. Don´t let anybody tell you sugar is no good. It´s no good when abused, as all the things. Or when somebody´s metabolism is already ruined.”

Zoe had a tendency to believe: the slim figure of Mme. W., the shine of hair and the pleasant texture of her skin, all could be a marketing campaign for the healthy intake of the right desserts.

“So, today you will tell me about yourself – not your family, boyfriend or friends, only yourself. In English. In your wonderful American English. See, I like absorbing different accents. And I tell you about mine, in French. In my Belgian French, of course. The Wallonian French of the educated class, to be precise. Do you agree?”

Zoe didn´t know how could she express a disagreement, even if she felt like. She would have to take the experience, as she will take the cake and the tea, now, because Mme. W. ordered a cup for her, when the waiter came with two big slices of the meringue with a little hill of a whipped cream on top of each.

A new escapade was beginning, Zoe knew that, when Mme. W. poured pale green tea into both cups. At the same time, she felt that  more important was the feeling of being about to end something; the end of what could be called the initial phase of her Brussels life.

Only much later could she support her feeling with facts, summed up, here they are for you, the reader:

  • Mme. W. at Florian was her first date with a person who had the origins in the town.
  • She listened to the French monologue of Mme. W. and understood almost everything without much effort (Zoe would`t be able to produce a similar one, but that`s another step).
  • Walking across the square Boniface in the downpour she did´t feel any strangeness around.
  • She took a bus crossing the Ixelles quarter instead of metro plus walking as she previously had done. That was too tourist-like.
  • The word merci slipped off her tongue as the most natural response when she was served the tea and the cake.
  • Heading from the Florian towards the Porte de Namur to catch the bus 34 she was going: Home.





About writingbrussels

Seven Writers. Three Languages. One City.
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