That can't be her. She takes the train to work. Helen sprints as soon as she sees me and kisses me on the right cheek and then on the left. "Grève, there's no train". She means "strike". Last night, a union representative wearing an orange vest and a hard hat answered a local television journalist's questions about their decision not to work today and at the weekend. Picketing is the French railroad workers' favourite sport; they are the world's champions.
Unlike during the pre-COVID pandemic, there's no queue; only eight of us are lining up to board a golden yellow double-decker bus that used to have 80 commuters each trip. Working from home two or three days a week has become a norm in many companies. Still, the railway employees' strike impacts people like Helen.
We're third on the line. The first passenger speaks French to the bus driver, and it takes them ages to exchange money. The second traveller chats in Italian with his companion, and they are not in a hurry to get on the bus. Helen motions for me to go before her. The driver nods when I show him my monthly ticket, and he asks Helen for five euros, which goes to the French government's coffer. Public transport is free in Luxembourg, a wealthy nation with more than 200,000 multilingual daily cross-border personnel, accounting for 46% of its workforce. The cost of "Aller-Retour", a return ride of 34 km between two countries, is inexpensive; it's the amount I pay for café au lait and a croissant in my neighbourhood.
Upon reaching our seats, Helen tells me, "I can't afford to be late; I'm on a mission to Brussels today".
She means "business trip". I hymn to the theme song of the film "Mission Impossible" with Tom Cruise. She laughs and argues that mission is used in all their administrative forms, including planning and travel reimbursement.
She murmurs, "I still have to pick up an important document from Judge Mignolet's cabinet".
I tease her, "From your boss's office? Or from one of his cupboards?"
She becomes apologetic. "Sorry, I'm fatigued. I wanted to say 'chamber'. Okay, it's an office, not a cupboard".
I smile and reassure her, "It's unavoidable, as you have been living in France for almost 30 years".
"Also, we often use false friends* in the EU institutions, notably at the Court where the main language is French". She sighs, "I'm so stressed; I don't want to be on this mission".
I hymn to the "Mission Impossible" soundtrack again.
She shakes her head and taps her forehead. "Official trip, official trip. Because of this two-day official trip, I won't assist in our book club meeting tonight".
I lean towards her, "We won't need your assistance but your presence".
"Yes, yes. I know; the word is 'participate'. Assist is 'help' in English. I keep using false friends. The day has only started, but my brain's Broca's area is already rusty and dusty".
"By the way, did you know that Maria has a 25-year-old daughter? I thought she was only in her mid-30s".
"She does look young for her biological age unless she was a teenage mum. What does her daughter do?"
"I heard her tell Andrew that her daughter's job involves animation".
"Is she a nurse?"
"I don't think so. Why?"
"If she animates, bringing people to life, she can be a doctor or nurse".
"Oh no! I'm losing my native tongue too. I mean the 'French' animate. Her daughter leads workshops and facilitates activities for children".
Our bus 503 screeches to a halt a few inches behind a lorry with a Polish registration plate. The driver, who is only two seats behind us, raises his hands above his head and opens the side window. He yells in Luxembourgish, "Are you sleeping or what! You shouldn't be on the road!". His stern, deep voice sounds like Arnold Schwarzenegger in James Cameron's Terminator.
Helen and I have been living in France and working in Luxembourg for over a decade but speak only half a dozen Luxembourgish words. "Jo" for yes, "Nee" for no, "moien" for hello, "merci" for thank you, "wann ech gelift" for please, and "addi" for goodbye. We are sure the Polish truckie didn't understand a word of what the bus driver had said.
Helen tilts her head slightly towards me. "You know what? Becoming proficient in another language makes you more confident, but this confidence sometimes causes embarrassment or awkwardness".
"You're right. When I was a French-language student at Sorbonne University in Paris, I used to translate each word or phrase into English. I could not talk clearly in proper sentences without making mistakes, even after passing the beginner and intermediate levels. I learned grammar and tenses, which depended on memory, but I could not carry on a basic conversation required to attain a level 1 qualification. Only two years later, after more than 100 trips to many parks with my toddler, I became more daring with my French. I even asked a female checkout employee, "Est-ce-que il y a des preservatives dedans?" indicating a bottle of strawberry jam. Unfortunately, "preservative", which is "conservateur" in French, is a false friend as it means condom. The checkout lady just looked at me without saying a word. There was a queue of about a dozen customers, but no one smiled or said anything, so I walked back to the breakfast food aisle and put the jam back on the shelf, scolding myself for not bringing my reading glasses".
Helen presses the red stop button and kisses me on the cheeks. "See you this week-end". (Week-end is a French spelling).
The next stop is Alphonse Weicker near the Auchan shopping centre, where I take the tram to work. I say to the driver, "merci monsieur, au revoir" (thank you and goodbye).
*False friends are words or expressions that have similar forms to those in a person's native tongue but have different meanings in another language, e.g. English-French, Italian-Spanish.