When people ask me where my love of language came from I say it all began in foreign kitchens.
One in particular.
In a pretty white cottage in a village north of Paris, I would sit at the kitchen table every morning, dipping baguette into my bowl of hot chocolate, watching droplets of melted butter form on the surface and listening to a flow of strange musical syllables.
Emmanuelle’s home smelt of freshly laundered linen and roasted coffee. I was 13 and had no idea what anyone was saying. I was lost but felt strangely found.
I loved every second.
And in the evenings as the family ploughed through course after delicious course (it helped that I was already a foodie), they teased me good-naturedly on my English ways. When we came to the cheeseboard and I always safely opted for Emmental, her grandfather would wink at me, saying, ‘Moi, je n’aime que les trous’ – ‘ I only like the holes.
It was a slowly pieced puzzle. Blindly stumbling through French culture, playing games, watching TV, cooking together and eventually... eventually finding the stream of incomprehensible sounds separating into individual words.
Words I recognised.
The next foreign kitchen was in Spain. In the hot and dusty village of San Bartolome where the doors of Clara’s home were flung wide to welcome the village youth every evening before we went out.
Then there were other kitchens: the herb scented one in the Provençal community where I worked after my A-levels; Gloria’s kitchen between Segovia and the mountains, where I learnt to cook tortilla de patatas; the student one in Salamanca where I exploded a pressure cooker full of Castilian green lentils; the Zapotec village kitchen in Mexico where I drank spicy Oaxacan chocolate at 6am after a group of us had birthday-serenaded a friend with “Las Mañanitas”... and, not far from that, the one where I learnt to warm corn tortillas without burning my fingers.
It was always about being with people, hearing them speak as we shared food. Little phrases, odd words, over and over again, finally sinking in. It didn’t take me long to realise that the place where I really grasped language was in a foreign kitchen...or lounge or garden, or out in the street meeting their neighbours. It was about living their lives with them.
This is what has remained. Although the language learning was the original point, it sometimes feels like that was just a happy by-product, that the real deal was the people and the way they included me, letting me step into their lives, sharing their culture and knowledge.
When Emmanuelle’s family welcomed me so wholeheartedly into their home, enfolding me in their lives, they unknowingly changed the course of mine. Maybe I would have always studied languages, but their kindness sowed in me the seeds of loving a different culture.
Their wholehearted welcome made me feel like belonging was a possibility; like I could genuinely be part of their conversations and their home which, for an awkward English teen, is quite a feat. I know not everyone had the same French exchange experience as me and I will always be grateful for the choice they made to welcome me (which was perhaps less of a choice, more a natural consequence of who they were).
It makes me want to challenge my own choices. How well do I welcome the foreigner in my midst, the person that is different?
Can we welcome outsiders in a way that brings them that same joy of believing that belonging is a possibility? Can our small actions and kindnesses change the course of someone’s life?