Thursday, January 6, 2011

Found In Translation

The night before New Years Eve my son’s Japanese girlfriend, Machiko made dinner for our family. Afterwards, Greta and I, Cal and Machiko downloaded Toy Story 3 to watch together.

As the animated film unfolded, I could hear Machiko quietly quizzing Cal about what was happening in the story. Her English is good, but when the dialogue is complicated she loses detail.

I’m missing some of the movie myself thinking about something connected to this moment that I saw that day on Facebook. Scrolling through the posts I see a list of people who “have the new profile,” and see a familiar face: Florence.

When I arrived in London for the first time in 1982, Florence was sitting behind the hotel desk, a lovely, aloof French girl with shoulder length, coal black hair, dressed in a style that would later become known as “Goth.” The Austrian night clerk told me in his broken English, “She like to play hard to get.” Once I got to know her I told him, “No, she just is hard to get.”

In the months I lived in that hotel Florence and I became close friends, drinking gin into the night in her room where the walls were plastered with David Bowie posters, a fragrant vile of ground flower petals sat on the window sill, and Ricki Lee Jones played from a cassette deck.

One night Florence and I took the subway to Piccadilly Circus and saw, “On Golden Pond,” a late career film for both Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn.

I have vivid memories of sitting in that theater with Florence. As the film unfolded, she quizzed me about what was happening in the story. Her English was good, but when the dialogue got complicated, she lost detail.

At some point she quit asking questions and watched quietly at my shoulder. Near the end, in an emotional climax when both Fonda and Hepburn’s characters are forced to confront their aging, ever-limited abilities, I saw Florence wiping tears from her face. The pantomime of action, the gentle flourish of orchestral strings meant to tug at the heart, punctuated by the nouns and verbs she was getting were enough. She understood pretty much what we English speakers in the theater were getting.

When we emerged from the dark theater onto that glimmering circle of the city, I asked if she understood what she had seen. “I didn’t understand everything they said, but I understood the meaning,” she said to me.

When Florence friended me on Facebook a year ago, it had been 23 years since I last saw her. The year after Greta and I were married, we backpacked Europe and Florence drove up to meet us in St. Raphael on the coast of France. I scanned her FB photos and saw recent vacation pictures that, if I had to guess, looked to be taken on the coast in northern Africa – there is a handsome husband in the photos and two teenage girls who look like they must be Florence’s daughters. The voyeuristic miracle of Facebook – to be able to peak into the lives of old friends from thousands of miles and a quarter century away.

At the end of Toy Story 3, when the grown up Andy handed over his own childhood toys to the little girl, I looked back over my shoulder at Machiko, snuggled up against my son and see that she’s wiping tears from her cheeks. I’ve had enough conversations with her to know that the dialogue is going too fast for her to understand all that’s being said, but that doesn’t matter. She understands.

Language and meaning are funny things. So essential, and at other times not so necessary.

At the end of the movie I accessed Facebook on my cell phone and sent a message to Florence: “I wish all the best for you and your family in the new year.” And a day later she responds in pretty darn good English, “My best wishes for this new year also. I think of you all very often. With all my friendship.”

South of France 1983

A photo Florence sent me on Facebook last year, one she took of me in the garden of her parent's hotel in St. Tropez in the summer of 1983.


  1. Damn, that almost looks like Jack.

  2. who is Jack?
    I did not understand the comment ... The language barrier continues!

    Nice memories, I loved it!
    I did not understand everything, but I understood the meaning ...

    I forgot the gin ... and I could not give you the names of the films we saw together.
    But I've never forgotten the moments shared together with you two, Jonh and you and the girls (which I can not remember the names), Dan Fogelberg, or "Good Night, Sleep Tight and Do not Let the Bed bugs bite! "
    Thank you to John Renner found me on FB.
    With much love,
    I think all of you, Florence.

  3. Florence,

    Jack is my 19 year old son. Kinda looks like a new and improved me.

    And you gave me my first gin and tonic - my current drink of choice. Think it was during the intermission at a play at the National Theatre - you came along with all us BSU students. At least I think it was the National - the one right on the Thames Embankment with windows looking out on the river. You walked up to me with two drinks, handed me one and said, "Here, drink this." My first gin & tonic.