That Time I Studied Abroad

Fleeting Encounters Over Tea

Palace of the Kings of Majorca, Perpignan, France
Palace of the Kings of Majorca, Perpignan, France

There was an old woman listening in on our conversation. Or, maybe she wasn’t listening to us so much as simply noticing us.

We were an odd-looking group, I suppose: two white women, barely older than teenagers, speaking jovial English with a Lebanese man in his early 30’s. We were in Perpignan at the time — a small city in Southern France.

Noticeable, if not notable.

I don’t remember what we were talking about, but we were in the courtyard of the Palais des Rois de Majorque (Palace of the Kings of Majorca). We smiled at the old woman when we noticed her noticing us, and she felt emboldened to walk over and ask where we were from.

I don’t speak French, but I know she asked where we were from because that’s the first question everyone asks a group of foreigners. I also know because my friend Liz spoke French and was able to converse with the old woman. I listened, as I had been doing since we arrived in France. We were only there for the weekend: we rode the bus up from Barcelona where the two of us were studying abroad.

I was getting good at understanding the gist of what Liz was saying when she spoke French because of the language’s similarities to Spanish (which I do speak) and because I was familiar enough with Liz’s voice that she sounded right in any language. I regularly heard her speak four: English (our native tongue), Spanish (our shared second language), French (which she had studied as a child), and Catalan (which we were learning together in Barcelona).

The 30-something man who was with us stood silently by while Liz and the old woman conversed. Liz and I were couchsurfing with a young French woman that weekend, in an apartment a block away from the sea, and, on our second night in her home, we were joined by a third couchsurfer.

Aseef was from Lebanon (“the best cyclist in Lebanon,” he informed us, but somehow it sounded humble when it came out of his mouth) and was in the midst of a travel epic — he was cycling around the Mediterranean, and couchsurfing the entire way. He had already made it through all of North Africa and Spain, and had just arrived in France. While our couchsurfing host was at work, he had decided to explore Perpignan with Liz and me. Aseef was personable and quick to laugh, and had accompanied us to the Palace of the Kings of Majorca because it was one of few major sights in Perpignan.

Liz and the old woman concluded their conversation — it had been brief, an explanation of who we were and quick exchange about the history of the palace. We continued our wanderings and found ourselves on the roof.

The view
The view

When we had gotten our fill of history and beauty, we exited the palace, and saw the old woman was leaving as well. She spoke to us again, and offered to show us around her city. It was mid-afternoon on a Sunday, and, unfortunately, most everything was closed, so she invited us back to her apartment.

We conferred briefly on this matter — did we want a strange, old woman to lead us back to her apartment? We decided she didn’t pose much of a threat, and she insisted her apartment wasn’t far, so we followed.

It was a small apartment in a building that showed its age. We sat in straight-backed chairs around her dining room table, which was covered by a clear plastic table cloth.

She made us tea — just something simple, black tea, if I remember correctly — and served it with cookies. She told us that she had lived alone ever since her second husband died. She brought out an album, and shared photos from her wedding.

Her first husband had been a real brute, she explained, but her second husband — a Spaniard — had been sweet. She told us she spoke a little Spanish because of him. We replied that we were studying in Barcelona and learning both Spanish and Catalan. She spoke some Catalan too, she said, because Perpignan is in a region of France that the Catalans call “Catalunya Nord” or “North Cataluña.” We smiled and told her we had learned that in our class about Catalan culture: it was one of the reasons we were interested in visiting.

Liz asked if we could take a group photo, and, afterwards, she took one of the old woman alone — a portrait. The old woman insisted that Liz send her a copy. We wondered later if she didn’t have many recent photos of herself. The old woman wrote down her address for Liz, and then insisted that we give her ours. “I’ll send you a Christmas card,” she said.

And then it was time to leave. Liz and I had a bus to catch while Aseef would be picked up by our couchsurfing host, and spend another night by the beach. The old woman walked with us to the bus station. Liz and Aseef fell into step beside each other, and I was left to converse with the old woman. The non-French speaker and the non-English speaker.

Not wanting to waste or ruin this strange, sweet encounter, we spoke to each other… in Catalan.

She knew more Catalan than I did, but we both lacked vocabulary, and so I filled the gaps with Spanish while she filled the gaps with French. I learned that she used to be a seamstress — she mimed it for me when I didn’t know the word in any Romance language. And her daughters’ birthday was in April, just like mine. We grinned widely at our small linguistic success.

And then we said adéu (au revoir, adiós, goodbye), and Liz and I boarded our bus.

Liz kept her promise and mailed the portrait to the old woman. I don’t have a copy, unfortunately. But I do have a card, which was waiting for me when my semester abroad was over, and I returned to the US.

Bisous, Danielle de Perpignan (Kisses, Danielle from Perpignan)
Bisous, Danielle de Perpignan (Kisses, Danielle from Perpignan)

A Christmas card filled with careful French lettering wishing me health and happiness in the new year, from a little old woman in Perpignan.


Two more Christmases have passed since our late afternoon tea, and Danielle has sent me a card for each one. I wonder if she remembers that I don’t speak French.

Not that it makes much of a difference.

Why is this week’s Tea Tuesday post about an experience I had while I was studying abroad? Because this post is an entry in the “Win a Trip to TBEX Contest” sponsored by WeHostelsWebjet, and TBEX. The prompt was to write about the most interesting person you’ve ever met while traveling, and, on a Sunday afternoon in November 2010, I happened to share tea with three of the most fascinating people I’ve ever met, traveling or otherwise.

Emma Holliday is well-traveled. After 5 years in Boston, she and her husband upended their lives to move to Berlin where she is currently writing a (funny) book about travel and grief and attempting to learn German.


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