Monday, June 1, 2009

Speaking in tongues

Today is the Monday after Pentecost, the day after the Church marks the beginning of the Apostles' ministry, the beginning of the spread of Christianity. The story goes that almost two months after the Crucifixion and subsequent Events Jesus' band of followers was still hanging around trying to figure out what to do with themselves. After dinner one evening the Holy Spirit came to them, and they all began to speak in tongues, to speak in languages they had never spoken before, and yet (here's the miracle) they understood each other. So they decided to hit the first-century Mediterranean lecture circuit and, 2000 years later, here we are with the day off. Because it's a national holiday in France, this Catholic country where separation of church and state is a bedrock of the Republic.

Lots of possible renters have been coming to look at La Bastiole for the last few weeks: French people, Dutch, some Finns, and, a couple of weeks ago, a American couple who were moving from the States for a couple of years. Jules and Madame were here for that visit and came down the hill to supervise. Danielle the agente immobilière came, and Christine, the Americans' agent, brought the couple. We all met up on the terrace. English was the common language and, since the couple was from America, the French all decided that I should give the house tour. I led the couple through--the kitchen was small, the refrigerator smaller, there wasn't a real dining room, and what about screens on the windows?--and they took pictures. When we got back to the terrace, Husband asked Wife if she had taken photos of every room.

Not of the bathrooms, she said, as though bathrooms were a self-evident thing, something that didn't need to be remembered.

Trying to help them understand what they were up against (toilettes à la Turque, anyone?), I put my hand on her arm. These are really nice bathrooms, I said. They're bathrooms for Americans.

The couple looked at me like I was crazy. Bathrooms are bathrooms, their expressions said.

Ours was the first house they had seen in France. The bathrooms at La Bastiole are airy, tiled in grey and blue, have lots of storage, deep bathtubs, and shower stalls. We even have one bathroom in which the toilet shares the room with the sink and bathtub, a rarity on this side of the Channel. La Bastiole's septic system may leave something to be desired, but the bathrooms look like something out of Architectural Digest.

In any case, Danielle the agente later told me that it was not the bathrooms that kept the couple from taking the house.

Ta maison,
she said, elle est trop Catholique.

My house is too Catholic?

We had to go through several iterations of the tale before I understood. It emerged--quickly from Danielle's machine-gun French, slowly into my consciousness--that the couple were Jewish. The couple had told their agent that all the Catholic objects in the house had been troubling for them, and that they didn't want to take the house for that reason.

We're not Catholic--C, for the record, was bar mitzvahed, and I am a lapsed Episcopalian--and so it took me some time to come up with what might have offended the visitors. Then I thought of the Camargue cross that was a gift from friends. The symbol combines an anchor (for hope), a cross (for faith), and a heart (for charity). It hangs in the guest room and reminds us of the day we spent with those friends (another mixed-faith family) in the Camargue.

Once I had absorbed the bare facts, Danielle editorialized. This is why we have wars, she said, because people aren't tolerant of other cultures. France is a Catholic country, she went on. No one goes to church, but still, it's who we are, it's our tradition. If they won't live in a house because it had a cross on the wall, how will they ever adjust to life here?

The message that Pentecost often carried when I was a regular church-goer was that of going out into the world to preach the gospel. It's a message that always made me squirm. I'm not good at selling things--Girl Scout cookies, magazine subscriptions, wrapping paper: our family always sold less than anyone else in the girls' elementary school--and Pentecost felt a little too much like a sales pitch. And then, there's the whole Talking about Faith with Strangers issue: really not my calling.

What I've come to love about the Pentecost story is something else. It's how, suddenly, everyone could speak a foreign language (a miracle in itself) and understand each other. As though our common humanity was all that we needed, as though we could cast aside the barriers of language and culture. As though all these possible renters--Dutch, Finns, French, Americans--could walk through La Bastiole speaking our own languages and yet communicating. (And the bathrooms: they'd understand that these really were designed à l'Américain.) Language--spoken and cultural--is a hard thing to learn, and the idea of a linguistic miracle speaks to me. Living in a foreign country and culture, that is the miracle (after world peace and an end to global warming, and Camembert that doesn't make the whole house stink) that I long for most. We all need to speak in tongues, to communicate our common humanity beyond and above our different languages.

I hope the couple found a house that was cross-free. And I wish for them their own miracle.


  1. Unbelievable!

    I hope they find the house they deserve,


  2. Great post!
    The world needs more people who think like you do...

  3. I really enjoyed this post. The explanation of Pentecost mixed with the anecdote about the American couple, nice juxtaposition. I wonder how those apostles did when they got to southern France