The afternoon I arrived in Montpellier was full of magic. 

After getting picked up at Les Sabines (the bus station) instead of Gare de Montpellier Saint-Roch (the train station), a result of me misreading my ticket and missing the train in Barcelona, Coco (short for Nicole) drove me to her two-story home just west of Montpellier. In disastrous French, respectable Spanish and no English, we talked about my trip, why I’m in Montpellier for three weeks and her aggressively friendly cat. 

The house tour would be quick, she said, because friends would soon be coming over, and did I mind if they played some music. Of course not. So there’s the living room, kitchen, her younger daughter’s room, her room, separate toilet and bathroom, and my room, which has a small balcony perfect not just for smoking (not so compelling) but also for eating ripe Camembert (similarly potent, vastly more delicious). 

Soon, Coco’s 30-year-old daughter arrived with ukulele in hand (she switched over recently after a lifetime of clarinet). Then came four other women, one who’d play the upright bass, and three singers. They mentioned offhand that a gentleman usually joins them, but he wouldn’t be making it. As they started playing through a setlist of French songs as a rehearsal for an upcoming performance, I sat to the side drinking tea and feeling both wildly amused and quite lucky. 

After a few songs, I asked what instrument their gentleman plays. Guitar, the bassist responded. I then asked if they’d mind me playing along. Oh? Not at all. 

Coco took me to the side room where there were two guitars, both in tune and ready to play. I grabbed one and took a seat in between the cellist and the older daughter, and followed along the chord charts for each song, my brain screaming out as I grappled for French words, barre chords and ¾ tempo. When I got the hang of a song, they would, of course, move right onto the next one. For an hour, my world was French songs, guitar, cake, chocolate, the smoke of freshly rolled cigarettes, a friendly cat, and more French songs. 

Soon, the music wound down and one by one the band began to depart. The Spanish, French, and, by necessity, some English mélange continued over chard soup, gruyère quiche and red wine. 

Then the evening was over, and I had to get ready for French school. 

I wish I could say I always stepped into the moment like I did that afternoon, that I always participated, that my choices led to more action than inaction. Especially with languages, sitting back – in restaurant, in class, on the street – is far more comfortable. Words get caught, thoughts get stopped, and I get stuck. 

And yet, for one afternoon, I broke free. 

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