11 October 2009

Miracle in the Cathedral

I've officially decided that the Cathédrale Saint-Etienne has special powers. This morning, I was bemoaning the fact that I still had not secured housing outside of the god-forsaken foyer I've been staying in.  I had posted online inquiries and scoured the French colocation websites and housing sections of Metz newspapers.  

My entire reason for coming to France was to improve my fluency in French, my dream since the age of 12.  The best way to accomplish this would be to live with French people, and to speak it constantly.  I preferred a family to simply a roommate situation, because it could potentially offer a better chance for conversation and meals together, and a vision of the French way of life. However, I was about to give up and simply rent a studio for myself, since all the familial housing opportunities wanted either an au pair or someone to teach the children English, which would defeat the purpose of living with French speakers.  Some of the fellow assistants told me I was probably asking for too much, and I was beginning to believe it.

At breakfast, I met a French woman from Lille who was passing through Metz, and we ended up having a long conversation (regrettably, she wanted to practice her English, but I indulged her to be polite).  I explained my housing dilemma, and she replied that I should seek help from the church.  "Just introduce yourself to the priest, and he will definitely help you find something in the parish," she explained with confidence.  That idea had not yet occurred to me, but since I was already planning on attending Mass at the Cathedral today, it seemed simple enough.  

Quickly, I designed a flyer featuring a photo and brief description of myself and that I was seeking a family environment to improve my French and learn about French culture.  I stashed several copies in my purse, and headed off to Mass.  I introduced myself to the priest, and explained my situation.  He took one of my flyers and told me he'd look into it and call me if he found anyone in the parish.  I thanked him profusely and walked away, in my head saying: God, I know you're not simply going to drop this out of the sky... but I would really appreciate it if you could...

Just then, I received a tap on my shoulder.  I turned to meet a slightly familiar face.  "You're that American, aren't you?" The stylish French woman in her mid-thirties smiled gently.  I was still trying to place her face, so she continued, "I don't know if you remember me, but a few weeks ago, I stood behind you in line at the cell phone shop.  I really regretted not taking your information, because I know how difficult it must be in a new country and a new language, not knowing anybody.  Actually, I saw your name on the cell phone contract you signed, and tried to search for you on Facebook, but couldn't find you. There are so many Alexanders!"

It all flooded back! It was my first day in Metz, and I had been complimented on my French by the salesman, as well as the woman in line behind me.  She had encouraged me to stay strong and that I would be fine.  I too had regretted not taking her information, because she had been so kind to me on one of the most difficult and chaotic days of my life.  As it turns out, she sings in the choir at the cathedral every Sunday for 10am Mass.

"Can I do anything to help you?" She asked.  

"Well, I'm currently staying in a foyer, but would really love a family to stay with, if you happen to know anybody who might--"

"Why don't you come live with me?" She asked, without wasting a breath.

I laughed, thinking it was a joke, but she continued, "I have a room in my apartment you may like.  I'm divorced and live with my 10 year-old son.  I will talk to him today and see if we can work something out. You can meet him and see how things progress."

I replied that she was very kind, but that it seemed like a lot to take on, so I'd understand if she changed her mind.  She took my flyer, and promised to call.  At this point, I was still doubting that something like this could just happen, so I didn't hold out too much hope.  Perhaps she was speaking in the heat of the moment. But, sure enough, a few hours later, Hélène called me, asking me to meet her and her son, Nicolas, at the Café des Arts in Place Saint-Jacques.

We had talked over cappuccino topped with luscious whipped cream, while Nicolas sipped on an iced tea.  I brought a photo album as an ice breaker, and he went crazy for the photos of my dog, Sherlock.  "We have a cat!" he told me eagerly. "Can you meet our cat today? Her name is Dorine!"  In the same breath, he exclaimed "Maman, I'm hungry! Can we have Croque-Monsieur tonight?" A Croque-Monsieur is a delicious ham and cheese sandwich prepared with a panini iron.  Hélène eyed me with a smile, and asked if I'd like to come over for dinner.  "Oui, bien sûr!" I exclaimed. "Of course!"

They live about 25 minutes from the city center on foot, but are also connected by the bus lines, which would mean a convenient trip to work every morning!  A large supermarket is across the street.  The apartment is chic and lovely, complete with internet access. Hélène did all the painting and decorating herself, and the colors are warm and inviting.  She showed me the beautiful little room I would have, which has a striking view of the city of Metz, including the Cathedral!  "I hope you don't mind," she said, "but we'll be speaking French here."  I smiled broadly.  "This is exactly what I want!" I assured her.

Dinner was simple and delicious: Croque-Monsieur with tomato and fresh grapes for dessert. Nicolas scurried about the apartment, showing me his beautiful siamese cat, his keyboard, performing his part in the school play for me, and talking a mile a minute.  He kept declaring to his mother that I would be his grande soeur (big sister), and that I was very pretty. Unfortunately, my American accent (which I have been trying desperately to repress) is the most hilarious thing in the world to him, and he kept repeating my French with an exaggerated accent and cracking up.  I suppose this is motivation to improve myself!  Good-naturedly, I challenged him to pronounce the English number 'three', since French people struggle with the TH sound.  More laughter ensued. It really felt like I had a little brother!

When the subject of rent arose, Hélène said, "Since you're only renting a room, and probably won't be making much money as a teacher, I couldn't dream of charging you more than, say, 100 Euro, or 120 Euro at the most."

I almost fell out of my chair.  Since I am currently paying over 400 Euro at the foyer, this is an absolute steal.  I told her I could pay her more, but she replied that that was all she wanted.  I promised I would help out wherever she needed, if she wanted me to walk Nicolas home from school or anything like that.  She agreed.

They walked me back to the bus stop, and Nicolas hugged and kissed me goodbye, asking over and over again when I'd be coming to stay. I have to give my foyer 15 days notice before leaving, which I will do first thing tomorrow. Hélène told me I could come earlier if I wanted, so I may very well take her up on that offer.

Back at the foyer, I Skyped my family and Jim, who were celebrating my sister Liz's 19th birthday at a big gathering at my house.  My parents, grandma, aunts, uncles, and cousins gathered around the dining room table to talk to me on Jim's laptop, and I shared the good news with everyone. I also got to chat with Jim and my sister separately, which was lovely. Everyone seemed so excited for me, and it was just an enormous boost to my morale.

My dad, a believer in miracles, was convinced that this was no accident, and I'm leaning towards his opinion. 

When I look at the amount of coincidence at work here, I begin to wonder if there is such thing as coincidence.  What if I hadn't arrived in Metz that day, or chosen that particular cell phone store (seemingly at random) from the multitude of cell phone stores in Metz, at that particular time? Metz is a fairly large city! What if I hadn't met that woman at breakfast who encouraged me to go to church? What if I had attended the 8am, 9am, or 11:30am Mass, and not the 10am Mass at the Cathedral, or gone to one of the other beautiful churches all over the city? What if I had walked up to a different priest at a different part of the massive church, since there had been several walking around to choose from? It's amazing Hélène even saw me among so many people, or that she recognized me at all! Amazing how so much can change in the space of a few hours, and how sometimes, prayer really is answered by a gift falling from the sky... or at least, a choir loft.


  1. What an amazing story. Tu as vraiment de la chance!

  2. So glad to hear you found a home, Jamie!
    Sounds like things are falling into place and that you've found a great family to live with.

    I'm finally going to try to get one of those head sets and set up skype this weekend!

  3. this is an amazing story!! what a wonderful opportunity for you to immerse yourself in french culture and the language! the universe truly works in mysterious ways!

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