As I described, it was a rough few years. We met dancing, and our dancing, hiking, whitewater kayaking, surfing, and skiing were all significant parts of our lifestyle and to some degree, who we were and what we shared as a couple. The deterioration of her hip changed all of that.
But there was an upside. It may be a bit of a stretch, but her inability to walk more than 100 feet ultimately led to her fluency in French.
When I met Karen in 2004, in addition to being impressed by her dancing, her athleticism, and her drive, I was blown away by her fluency in Spanish. Part of my dream in wanting to come back to France was to become truly fluent - something that I believe is impossible unless you live in a French environment and immerse yourself in the culture and language. The fact that Karen was completely bilingual was a surprise to me and I was envious.
Of course, she had a major advantage. From an early age, she grew up in a Mexican household - her stepmother was Mexican.
When we started coming to France, I learned that Karen had taken some French in high school, but had never kept up with it. She did visit France in 2000, but discovered that she'd lost it all and other than the fact that her last name (Noël) was everywhere (it was Christmas time), she really couldn't understand any French at all.
When she and I first visited France together during the summer of 2005, I had to do all the talking. Karen could say 'Bonjour', 'Merci', and 'Au revoir', but not much else.
On subsequent trips to the Pays Basque, we had a deal - I would speak for us in France and she would speak for us in Spain. Having spent some time on business trips in Spain, I can get by with my rudimentary Spanish, but like Karen, if you've got someone with you who is fluent, why would you speak?
Of course we spent more time in France than in Spain on our trips, and as our social circle started to expand, I found myself in the difficult position of attempting to do simultaneous translation while trying to be involved in a conversation at the same time. It was awkward to say the least. You may remember the challenging interrogation with the Basque family I described in Our Place in France - Part 3.
So what does this have to do with Karen not being able to walk?
Well, just before one particularly miserable trip where we had problems with wheelchairs in the airports, Karen had begun physical therapy for her hip. She had exercises to do and did easy workouts at Curves in Santa Cruz. Her physical therapist suggested she find a gym in France, if at all possible, to keep strengthening her weakened muscles.
The day of our arrival, we noticed a Curves franchise about a five minute drive from our mogul-ridden apartment. It was closed. We returned the next day. They had just opened - it was their first week in business. Since Karen spoke no French and the owner spoke no English, I had to be there to sign her up. Of course, I couldn't be there during her workouts because Curves was for women only. Karen was a bit nervous, but one of the physical trainers who spoke just a 'leetle' English assured me that Karen would be okay.
Over the course of the next several weeks, Karen went to Curves faithfully, often twice a day. Life continued as it had on previous trips with me speaking French for Karen and me encouraging Karen to try to order meals when we ate out (which was often).
Early in the trip, we were walking around the Place Louis XIV in Saint Jean de Luz visiting with many of the artists who had their work on display there, hoping to find artwork for the apartment. We fell in love with the work of Patrick Pierart and after a long discussion, decided to meet with him at his studio in Bayonne where he could show us more of his pieces. Ultimately, we bought several of his works which grace the walls of our place today.
Patrick took us on a tour of the club, then we settled down to a superb lunch in the courtyard. Patrick spoke very little English, so I interpreted as best I could while trying to maintain a conversation.
At one point, I excused myself to go to the restroom leaving Karen alone with Patrick, hoping she'd be okay for a few minutes. When I returned, Karen was speaking French with him. While she made a lot of grammatical errors, she was perfectly understandable and she and Patrick "s'entendaient bien." I was shocked.
explained that as someone who loves to talk, she couldn't have survived at Curves without talking. Over the course of the six weeks we were in France, she had spent several hours a week hearing and speaking French with the women there and in particular with the trainer we'd met in our first visit to Curves. This trainer, Martine, has since become one of Karen's best friends (as I described in my post My Miraculous Wife - Hiking in the Pyrenees).
Discussing her much improved French on the way home, Karen decided that she needed to find a way to practice it while we were in the States. Just before our departure, she set up Santa Cruz Speaks French - a Meetup Group for people who want to practice their French. They (we - I was required to go) now have over 130 members and meet twice a week.
We had a sumptuous meal of duck confit, a salad which included the white asparagus of Landes, huge piles of grilled mussels in a spicy sauce, and magret de canard - duck filets, along with a huge potato dish, multiple desserts, and of course lots of French and Spanish wine, including some very rare vintages and one bottle from our host's uncle. Normally, a situation like this would be very stressful for Karen. And while she didn't understand 100%, she held her own, even in political discussions and discussions about morals and raising teenagers and the differences between France and the States. 'Lunch' lasted 6 hours - six hours of no English and several people talking and debating and telling jokes non-stop in rapid-fire French.
I think you get the theme here. Karen is tenacious. When there's something she needs to do, something she needs to learn, an obstacle she needs to overcome, she digs in and works and works and works until she succeeds. She truly is my miraculous wife.