"Watching The Water Department"
[Monday, June 16, 2014]
Elodie loved life in Rutledge.
Vermont was as different from
Louisiana as Louisiana had
been from Martinique, but
that was what she wanted.
She was settling well enough
to help the Syrian children at school.
Reflétant l’école Cécile de Brunhoff
had concluded in spring, then promptly
launched a summer tutoring program for
interested families. All of the Syrians who
spoke French had pounced on it, and so
had several of the local families. Even
some parents came with their kids.
The teachers took turns opening
the school building -- which had
been adapted from a big house --
for the students of the day.
Lilou Gagnier helped Elodie
set up the attic playroom. She
was becoming a new friend, and they
chattered in French as they worked.
Then the families began to arrive.
The first was Rafiqa Hamoud,
only sixteen herself with
a year-old son, Barnum.
He was learning Arabic
and French together.
They sat down on
the floor in front of
Pari Samaan was
seven, the last survivor
out of all her siblings.
She flitted into the play tent
and curled up in the pillows.
Her father Farid followed
at a slower pace, his grief
clearly weighing on him.
Elodie patted his shoulder
and greeted him in French,
but did not try to stop him
from crawling in with Pari.
Everything in the room was
available for anyone to use.
Tariq and Hasina Al Numan
came with their four children.
The redheaded girls -- Aliénor,
Barbe, and Francine -- belonged
to Tariq and his first wife Euphémie,
a French journalist, who had died
covering the Syrian conflict.
The dark-haired boy, Hassan,
had come from Hasina and
her first husband Abitayeh,
who was killed in a bombing.
As soon as he could, Hassan
pulled away from his parents
and headed for the art table.
They started to follow him,
but Elodie caught Hasina
and said, "Hassan is fine.
You can watch him draw."
Lilou had intercepted Tariq,
so Hassan could work in peace.
Barbe clung to her sister Aliénor,
and Francine just stood there
until Aliénor took her by the hand
and led her over to the couch.
Rafiqa turned around to greet them,
and even Barnum babbled something
that might have been meant as "Bonjour."
Avrachan and Rahelamma Olikara
stopped in to drop off their children.
Three-year-old Itty went straight to
the back wall with its storage cabinets
and dragged out a box of French blocks.
Then he sat with his back to the room
and started to play with the blocks.
Avrachan sighed. "It's so hard to get Itty
involved with anyone else," he said. "I
don't have the heart to force him, though.
I feel much the same way myself."
"Itty will play with others when
he's ready," Elodie assured him,
"and so will you, Avrachan."
Meanwhile five-year-old Raca
had hurried to join the other girls
on the gray couch, and her mother
was already talking a mile a minute
about her plans to visit the library
and study American history.
Rahelamma's English was
terrible, but that didn't stop her.
Gamar and Yaminah Ismail brought
their two teenagers, Daud and Bassam.
The boys looked around briefly. Then
Daud joined the group by the couch as
Bassam jittered around the room.
Lilou caught up to Bassam
and said, "If you sit quietly while
we watch a show and discuss it,
then I'll take you downstairs to
the dance studio or outside to
the playground afterwards."
Bassam hugged his parents
goodbye and then sat down.
He didn't stop fidgeting, but
at least he stayed in his seat.
Yann and Margot Quevillon
were among the locals who
took advantage of the tutoring.
He ran Cinque Francs and she
ran Le Petite Jardin, so they could
certainly use the extra childcare.
In return, the school got local kids
who could help the Syrians adapt.
Heloise went to the art table
and politely asked Hassan
if she could join him.
Hassan scooted his chair
farther away, then said, "Oui."
Alaire was just as restless
as Bassam, and so Lilou
made him the same offer.
Jolie was happy to join the pile
of people on and around the couch.
Frery was only two, perfectly content
as long as he had people around.
Automatically Rafiqa put him on
her lap so he wouldn't scream.
"Today we're all going to watch
an episode of The Water Department,"
said Elodie. "You'll hear both French
and English, so try to remember that
we're practicing French when we
discuss what happens in the show."
The younger children sorted themselves
onto the floor, the older ones on the couch,
and the adults pulled up some chairs.
Elodie turned on the viewscreen
and listened to the familiar music.
The show aimed primarily at
preschool to elementary ages,
but it had some content for
older audiences as well.
"There's Amadou Jouf,"
Elodie said as a black teen
appeared. "He speaks
Français populaire africain
because comes from Senegal.
Listen closely and you should
be able to understand him."
Amadou was talking about
his dream of going to college.
"Here comes Patrice LaPoint,"
said Lilou, indicating a woman
with her hair pulled back in a bun.
"She speaks New England French
like we do here. She's my favorite
because she lives in Vermont and
works for the Alliance Française
of the Lake Champlain Region."
As they watched, Patrice
led Amadou on a tour
of Middlebury College.
It was more about exploring
the campus than about college
itself, although Patrice did talk
about the French department, how
students could visit Paris, and what
you could do with a French degree.
"What are they doing?" Amadou said
in his spicy African French as he
pointed to a group of children.
"They're planting a rain garden,"
Patrice said, then described
how that would fix the wet spot.
Then Elodie had to pause the show
to explain things, because the Syrians
had no idea what a rain garden was
or why anybody would need one.
"I cannot even imagine having
too much water!" Hasina said,
shaking her head. "That is
like having too much gold."
"Aleppo gets thirteen inches
of rain per year," said Lilou,
who also enjoyed gardening.
"Rutledge gets 43 inches of rain
plus another 78 inches of snow.
It all has to go somewhere."
Now the Syrians were all
staring at them in shock.
Farid poked his head out of
the play tent. "Ibrahim warned us
that we would see snow here, but I
didn't realize he meant that much."
Margot laughed and said,
"You will see all the snow."
"Don't worry, we will teach you
how to deal with the snow safely,"
Yann promised. "We have plenty of
sweaters and warm pants in the stores."
"We could trade clothes!" Jolie said.
She was only four, but already generous.
"Jolie's right," said her older brother Alaire.
"If we set up a swap meet in late summer,
then people can get rid of things that don't
fit anymore. Then they'll know what they
need to replace, and other people can
pick up the used clothes they like."
"We can practice our vocabulary
for clothes, too," said Heloise.
"That's a good idea," said Elodie,
making a note to arrange the swap.
"After we finish watching the show,
I can bring out the flashcards and
some doll clothes to practice with."
She resumed the episode.
Everyone exclaimed over
the pretty potted plants that
the children were putting out.
Patrice and Amadou went over
all the names, first in French,
then in English like what would
be on labels at a garden center.
"Do we need a rain garden?"
Hasina asked as she watched.
"Not here at the school, and
Family Business Rest already has
some in the landscaping," Lilou said.
"When you move to a home of your own,
you should check the lawn for wet spots
after a rain. If you find puddles, then
you might want a rain garden."
"Ask Elry Richards, who runs
Green Mountain Yard & Garden,"
Elodie suggested. "He helped me
choose plants for my raised bed."
"Oh, you like gardening?" Hasina said.
Elodie laughed. "I don't know," she said.
"I never tried it before. I grew up on a boat,
then I was in college, then in a tiny apartment
in Easy City. When I moved here, there was
so much space! The raised bed came with
my new apartment, so I wanted to try it."
"It's good to try new things," Lilou said.
"I'd like to hear how it turns out."
They turned their attention back
to the show, where Amadou was
making similar comments about
the rain garden -- he came from
a tropical country and didn't
recognize Vermont plants.
That was okay, though.
Elodie had discovered that
no matter how foreign a place
seemed at first, you could make
new friends and learn more about it.
Then it would become home.
* * *
This poem is long, so the character, location, and content notes appear elsewhere.