Write a letter or send a card to someone.
Another Monday morning, and Leni drew another task that required laboring over something with her hands. While writing a letter wasn’t as irritating as stuffing a duvet into a cover, this wasn’t exactly something she had prepared for.
Leni strained to peep into her mailbox cubby.
There was a letter!
Her hands fumbled awkwardly with the tiny key as she opened the box front and fished the letter out. Only Mom wrote with such regularity and most Thursdays letters from home wound up in Leni’s box.
It was four flights of stairs up, but they hardly mattered as she stormed up them and flung her dorm room open. Though the other French students kept their doors shut, Leni and the other two Americans on the floor didn’t care. Their doors were open almost all the time, except for when they were actually studying or sleeping. Who knew if it irritated the other French kids—Leni rarely saw them, anyway.
Chucking her shoes off, she sat down on her desk chair and tore the letter open.
Not a whole lot was going on back home, but Leni was starved for every detail. In her mother’s copperplate (and elementary school teacher’s) handwriting, none of Mom’s details were too boring to too insignificant. Her older sister was rocking junior college, her younger brother and sister were surviving high school. Her baby brother was still in kindergarten and learning to read at an astonishing rate. Mom talked about people at work Leni didn’t even know existed and she wrote about all the latest news and gossip from church.
She tried to read the two handwritten pages as slowly as she could. Once she’d absorbed the letter, she read it carefully three more times, trying to commit every tiny detail to memory. Only then when she was done, she let her eyes drift to the small framed family portrait on her desk.
Though everyone except her youngest brother had an email account, Leni was royally irritated that no one emailed her. Everyone touted email as the “next big thing” in staying connected, yet neither parent nor any of her siblings bothered to write and say what was going on. Only Mom bothered to pick up a pen and say what the hell was going on back home.
And Leni was very grateful for it.
Leni grabbed her fountain pen—which she thought was so cool because so many French people still used one though she’d never even seen one in the States—and an ivory-colored piece of airmail paper, so lightweight it was almost like tissue paper—a birthday gift from her mother just before Leni went way to France. In her tiny printed/cursive hybrid, Leni detailed the rapid progress she was making in her classes, what she was doing with her youth group, the weekend trip to Dijon and other observations about living in Europe. They all seemed like innocuous details to Leni, but she knew her mom was genuinely interested in what she was doing and only Mom really knew what a dream come true this was.
Her hand cramped up a couple times, so she shook it vigorously to get the blood circulating properly. Her neck kinked up because she slumped over the desk and wrote so laboriously. But when she was done, Leni had one large paper covered front and back in her tiny script with all the latest news from France.
Putting her mom’s latest letter back in its envelope, Leni went over to the tiny wardrobe that miraculously held all her clothes. On the top shelf with her socks and a fresh lavender sachet, she grabbed a bundle of letters held together with a red satin ribbon. Untying the clumsy knot—Leni was never very good at wrapping—she kissed the letter and put the newest communiqué from home on top of the pile. She re-wrapped the pile, inhaled the lavender that permeated the letters and put it back up on the shelf.
As Leni started her homework, she remembered snooping around her mom’s stuff while her parents were out of town one weekend. She stumbled across dozens of letters her dad had written her mom when they were dating and while they were engaged. They gave Leni a very different view of her folks because instead of being grumpy and parentlike, she discovered her parents were, well…normal. Her father was freaking hilarious with his really bad jokes and colorful anecdotes. But he was also rather poetic but deeply sincere in his declarations of love, which had to be true because they had been married 35 years.
Letters were the most personal form of communication Leni had ever experienced. They were certainly more intensely personal than any email, fax or instant message. And there was a level of intimacy no phone call could rival. Even face-to-face conversations weren’t the same because people could come barging in at any second. Letters were made to be treasured for generations or destroyed in the heat of the moment. Letters were a snapshot in time, depending on what the situation was going on at the time and the relationship between the two correspondents. Meanings were inferred and implied. Despite all the technological advances of the twentieth century, nothing was quite like a letter.
Leni had never had a real boyfriend and she doubted even if she did, she would never have a stack of letters from one. No, the letters from Mom were not the same as the bundle of letters from a sweetheart, but they meant the world to her just the same. She pulled her stack out when she was homesick which was more often than she cared to admit. She picked two or three at random to read and it reminded her that no matter how sad she was or how long it seemed till she saw her family again, she was really, truly loved and she could always count on that to get her through the worst days.
Leni always ventured to the post office tomorrow they very next day to mail her letter back home. Of course it was closed between noon and two—heaven forbid anything in the damn town was actually open over lunch—but she had just enough time between classes to pop into the office on the Grand-Rue. She stood in line between five and ten minutes because even if there was only one person in line in front of her, the clerks always moved at a glacial pace. Of course, that really wasn’t any different than when she had to stand in line at the post office back home. Fast, efficient courteous service didn’t exist on either side of the globe. And as much as it sucked, there was something oddly comforting about it.
When she was finally the first person in line, Leni waited for one of the two windows to open up. After an eternity, one customer finished their transaction and shoved off. The postal worker kept their head bent over something probably unimportant for about two minutes, then finally looked up and gestured as if to a disobedient dog. “Au prochain!”
Leni approached the counter with the perfunctory “bonjour” and nothing else. She didn’t need to tell the clerk she was posting a letter to the States, nor did she really feel like engaging the civil servant in any sort of dialogue.
The clerk stamped it about 85 times—what was the French obsession with stamping the shit out of letters and documents—weighed it and gave her a price.
Leni defiantly slapped a 50 franc note on the counter, well under the stated amount.
The clerk, a man in his mid-40s with neither looks nor personality going for him, cocked his head and pulled the grocery checkout line. “Don’t you have change?”
Sonofabitch. Was it any wonder going to the post office was only slightly less painful than a Soviet era bread line? She was more intimidated by postal workers than checkers at the supermarket, so usually she bowed to authority. But it was Friday and she wasn’t in the mood. Leni sighed. “That’s your job.”
“You really don’t have any change?”
“No.” She didn’t know if she had any, nor did she care.
“You didn’t even look in your fgnpozxi,” he said almost plaintively.
My wallet? “I have to change.”
“Well, I don’t have any.”
Why do I have to deal with a petulant 45-year-old? “Prove it,” she said coolly, narrowing her eyes into hard slits.
“Prove to me you don’t have any change. I refuse to believe you don’t have any coins. The last person just gave you many coins.” Leni wasn’t putting up with his bullshit.
The man’s jaw dropped to the floor. If he hadn’t been behind a plexiglass wall, Leni would have pointed to the roll of coins sitting just off to the side. He opened his till, grabbed a few francs and practically threw them onto the little metal bowl-shaped tray. Leni reached into the groove and picked them up.
“Merci et au revoir, monsieur.” Asshole, she added in her head.
Leni sauntered back to class, content in the feeling of one-upping the postal worker and giddy in the knowledge her letter would reach her mom in about a week.
Love ya, Mom! You’d be proud of me. xxoo.
Leni had a small mountain of blank greeting cards she purchased at Target in the dollar aisle. They were a real steal—eight cards for just a buck! They were super handy because she used them for thank you letters, birthday cards and for general correspondence.
Who should she write a letter to? Leni flipped through her address book for inspiration. She was one the only person she knew under 40 who kept a paper address book, but it was easier for her to flip though names than to scroll through her phone. Besides, there were quite a few people she had no phone number for and she frankly preferred having a real address more than a number.
A relative? A friend? Someone overseas? Leni never wrote letters out of the blue, so whoever was getting a letter from her had to be someone who didn’t mind her eccentricity of pen to paper.
Actually, it seemed like an elegant solution. Leni could thank her for inviting her over the other night. Perfect excuse! She slipped a blue-and-white plaid card and envelope into her purse.
After she finished her lunch, Leni penned a simple, two-paragraph letter. In it, she thanked Angie for a lovely bottle of wine and such wonderful company last week. She also simply said how much she enjoyed her friendship. Granted, it wasn’t a long, newsy letter, nor was it done with a fancy pen or stationery. Quite the contrary—she wrote with a cheap-o ballpoint pen and a dollar store card. But that didn’t mean the sentiment was in any way diminished nor did it mean she cared any less.
Looking in her address book, Leni wrote Angie’s home address on the envelope, sealed it and used a stamp from the book she kept in her purse. She popped the letter in with the outgoing mail for the afternoon, a huge sense of accomplishment filling her spirit.
Writing letters may be a dying art, but as long as Leni could hold pen to paper, she would keep the tradition alive.
Mardi Jour Neuf (Day 9)
Watch the film “Amélie.”
Leni didn’t need to be told to do this one twice. “Under the Tuscan Sun,” was her favorite movie when she needed a European fix, but she hadn’t seen “Amélie in so long that was excited to rekindle her love affair with that movie.
While she showered, Leni tried to decide how to get her hands on a copy of the movie. Leni didn’t have Netflix, nor did she own the movie on DVD. Her only options were buying or renting the dang thing. She highly doubted any Red Boxes would carry it and she was too cheap to go buy her own copy (how long would DVDs and Blu Rays be viable ways to watch films, anyway?), so she decided to rent a copy on iTunes.
As she ate breakfast, Leni ordered a copy on her iPad and let it download while she was at work. She figured by the time she got home, the movie would be done downloading so she could enjoy it after dinner.
Work could not go by fast enough that day!
She actually happened to be living in France when the film first came out. She probably wouldn’t it if it hadn’t come recommended, though…
“So, what are we seeing tonight?” Leni asked. She was going to the movies with her co-worker Odette in the next town over.
“Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain,” Odette said. “It’s done by the Jeunet brothers and stars Audrey Tatou. How does that sound?”
“Audrey Who?” Leni had heard of a lot of French actresses, but not that particular one.
“Audrey Tatou. She’s about your age and she was in ‘Venus Beauty Institute’ which came out a couple years ago. You’ve never heard of her?”
“No.” Just flippin’ great. Just because you speak better English than I do, I was kind of hoping we’d see some of the recent Oscar nominated films. But, no, fine. We’ll see your stupid French movie! “The Jeunet brothers…have I heard of them?”
“’Delicatessen?’ “’The City of the Lost Children?’”
Leni had seen both of those. Jean-Pierre and Guillaume Jeuent wrote fantastical films based on quirky characters, usually featuring dystopic societies, which she had some to hate in movies. Still, she liked both movies immensely. Even if she had never heard of Audrey Tatou, the movie couldn’t be that bad.
She and Odette got to the theater, paid for their tickets and settled into their seats. But then Leni was struck with an insane desire to eat some popcorn, though she hadn’t noticed any concessions stand. “Can I get some popcorn?” she whispered to Odette, who’d been to the theater smany times before.
“Yeah, the machine is out in the lobby.”
“Machine?” Had she heard Odette right?
“Yeah, I think it costs 20 francs. Do you need a coin?”
“Nah, I’m good.” Am I good? Who the hell buys movie popcorn out of a machine? Leni made her way back to the lobby and scanned the room. She saw two people standing in front of a vending machine/kiosk. Bingo.
She watched like a hawk as the couple inserted a coin and punched a button. A large plastic cup dropped down followed by a shower of popcorn. The little door opened and they retrieved their popcorn.
Examining the machine, she didn’t find any indications for extra salt or butter. Am I really paying three bucks for a cup of plain popcorn? Leni hadn’t been to the movies in so long that she was really passed caring. She popped her coin in. The machine whirred to life and the cup dropped. Though she didn’t hear any popping, the popcorn came flowing down and the door opened. She reached her hand in and got her treat. She couldn’t resist the urge to taste one kernel and she almost spat it out, it was so disgusting.
The popcorn was stale. And sugared.
Leni despised caramel corn, and this was not a welcome way to eat popcorn, especially when she wanted a huge bag of fresh popcorn drowning in (real or fake) melted butter. Popcorn wasn’t supposed to have tiny sugar granules on it, nor was it supposed to be stale. It tasted foul and it was a real disappointment.
Still, she was cheap. She’d paid for the popcorn so dammit she was going to eat it.
She wove her way back to her seat and set the cup between her legs. “The popcorn’s sweet,” she hissed to Odette as the trailers came on.
“Of course it is, what did you expect?” She really had no idea.
“In the States, our popcorn is salted and usually has butter on it.”
Odette’s eyes grew large and even in the dim theater, Leni could see her genuine shock. “No wonder there’s such an obesity epidemic over there.”
Leni just offered her some popcorn. Now is not the time to get into it.
It was wise of her not to argue with her friend about fat Americans (at size 18, Leni was hardly svelte by American or French standards), because she was in for a cinematic treat. Though she missed some of the cultural references and the film was not subtitled—why would you subtitle a French film in France—Leni understood the vast majority of the dialogue, enough to be completely besotted with the film.
Amélie was a plucky waitress in Paris whose mission it became to improve the life of those around her. Through her direct meddling, her father got out of his house/hermitage and traveled the world, her café customers stopped obsessing about their problems and hooked up with new loves, the mysterious artist across the alley turned out to be a lovely friend, the shy grocer’s assistant found his voice and his worth, her landlady found a “lost” letter from her deceased philandering husband, and Amélie solved the mystery of the man in red shoes for her new boyfriend, Nino.
The plot was whimsical, and the visuals superb. Leni loved the reds, greens and yellows which dominated the color scheme. The soundtrack was pure French; she could easily imagine smoking a Gauloise in a café circa 1920 and enjoying such gay accordion music. The costumes were fun. Leni particularly enjoyed Audrey Tatou’s simple sweaters and dresses, though she didn’t care so much for the clunky Doc Martens she always wore.
More than anything else was the film’s message…life is beautiful and meant to be enjoyed, from the simplest pleasures (putting hands in sacks of grain, skipping stones, breaking the surface of crème brûlée) to the biggest triumphs (falling in love, doing good for others).
Leni had never seen such a fun, beautiful movie from beginning to end. A satisfying emotional roller coaster.
In the decade that passed, Leni saw the film two or three more times, but it she hadn’t seen it since she got her master’s degree. Like so many other films, Leni tucked the memory of the movie safely into the recesses of her mind. Though she couldn’t tell you the plot or the characters, she could tell you how the movie made her feel.
Which was precisely why she was so excited to get home and watch it after work.
She couldn’t stop thinking about the movie at work. She resisted the mighty impulse to look up a plot synopsis or even pictures online, though she did cave in and played “La valse d’Amélie” on YouTube and listened to it three times in a row. It was hard concentrating on all her spreadsheets when her brain was in Paris ready to dive into a world of French whimsy.
Leni got home, changed into her jammies, fed Opie, ate dinner, then settled back onto her couch with her iPad. The movie was downloaded, cued up and she was ready to rock and roll.
She wasn’t disappointed. Though it had been ten years since last she’d seen “Amélie,” Leni cried when Amélie despaired of ever meeting Nino. She cheered the grocer’s assistant when he grew a pair of balls and defended himself against his mean employer. She laughed at the garden gnome’s exploits as he trotted the globe. She sighed with relief as Amélie rode on the back of Nino’s moped—young, happy and in love.
She shut her tablet off and got ready for bed. Leni fell in love with the movie all over again and she wasn’t disappointed by one single detail in the film. She remembered precisely what she had loved about the movie all those years ago, and with a few years (and hopefully some grace and wisdom) under her belt, she was able to make a few more observations she couldn’t as a 22-year-old.
While Leni couldn’t machinate the good deeds like Amélie could, she could try to be the happiest person she could to make someone else’s day just a little bit brighter. You really never know how awful a day people have had, so it did pay to treat people gently. Unless they are assholes—then they just deserve whatever you can fling back at them. She was glad she wasn’t quite as solitary as Amélie was, but Leni could stand to get out of the house a little more frequently. And for God’s sake, keep your eyes open! There are menfolk all around, waiting to be flirted with…
Leni had the film rented for three days, but she only felt compelled to see it once. Though she would be damned if it would be ten years before she saw it again, Leni was content just seeing it this one time. She was older and wiser than her 22-year-old self and certainly had more life experience than Amélie. She wasn’t a quirky Parisian café waitress. She was a quirky American data analyst, and she had the grace and wisdom to know what she wanted in life and go after it.