I’m 14 years old, and living with a host family in Brittany for the summer to improve my French. The family is made up of Grandmère and Grandpère, their daughter, and their granddaughter, four-year-old Sixtine. Sixtine treats me as her personal plaything, and finds it hilarious when I get things wrong. But how can you not know that, ignoramus?! Every day when I come home from summer school she pounces on me and orders me to sit with her while she watches Livre de la Jungle. Apparently I am Collonell’Artee. I decide it’s best not to analyse whether that’s a compliment or an insult.
After the film, Sixtine drags me out to her den in the garden, bread and jam in hand to keep us going until suppertime. The jam is homemade by Grandmère, and delicious. The sweetness of gooseberry jam, thick with fruit, spread generously over unsalted butter on rough-torn hunks of baguette will always make me think of that summer in France. Even the smell of it bounces me straight back to a time when I could forget that I was the odd one out who couldn’t hold a proper conversation and instead concentrate on being a bossy, elderly, male elephant playing with a four year old monkey.
One day when I get home from school Sixtine runs up to me, bursting with self-importance. Kate! Look! She presents me with her pink plastic beach bucket, filled to the brim with what look to be razor clams and a type of tiny black sea snail. I admire her booty with oohs and aahs. It’s not easy to be effusive with my limited vocabulary, but Sixtine seems satisfied at my attempts, and roots around to find the very biggest clam in the bucket for me.
Grandmère puffs out of the kitchen with a concerned look on her face. She gestures towards the bucket in which Sixtine is foraging with glee. Kate. Tonight we’re eating … these. Grandmère’s face is anxious as she waits for my reaction. I must look dumbstruck, as she puts her hands up with a smile. Non, non – I understand. I’ll make something else for you. I run after her as she heads back towards the kitchen – she’s misunderstood my expression. The horror on my face, far from being revulsion at the thought of eating (thanks to Sixtine’s enthusiastic rummaging, by now probably very dazed) molluscs, is caused by the fact that she would think I’d turn down fresh, delicious shellfish. Untying my tongue, I stammer in stilted French that not on her life am I missing out on clams collected a mere hour earlier. Grandmère claps her hands in excitement and cries, ‘Vraiment! Tu n’es pas Anglaise. Non – t’es Bretonne.’ before bustling back to the kitchen wreathed in smiles.
That evening at dinner I am, for the first time, truly one of the family.