How to Eat Cheese

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In a low-lit, cavernous kitchen in southwest France, very late at night, introductions emphasize language:

This is my father. He speaks only Czech and bit of German.
My mother has only French.
My brother can speak English a little, but my father knows none.
Her mother? Czech.

In French, Loreline explains that I speak only English, but as a generous afterthought adds that I know some German. (In reality, I can point to and name perhaps two dozen items and inquire after the toilet, the result of several years of classes.)

Loreline’s father—smallish and thin, identical to Baryshnikov in memory—pulls out wine, grapes, bread, knives, and worn cutting boards as we gather around the sprawling wooden platform that serves as a dining table. His wife, a tiny opera singer, says what I assume is the French equivalent to “Oh my, we’ve forgotten the cheese.” She returns a moment later, a half-dozen masses wedged between her fingers and balancing on her open palms. She peels back the wrappers to expose the cheeses—unfamiliar to me except for brie, which I recognize, but have never tasted.

It is 1997, three weeks after I’ve graduated from high school, and the first time I’ve left the country. The plane ticket was a gift from my grandfather, the only traveler in our family, to visit two exchange student friends I’d made at my rural Virginia high school the year before—Loreline from France and Dita from the Czech Republic. Both were blond and taller than me, warm and friendly when I’d met them in class despite having been duped, as I saw it, into living as exchange students out in the country,  so far from anywhere anyone would want to be.

I look at the table, hungry and self-conscious. How to cut into that one? Pick off a bit? Cut it? Chew it with bread or alone? Am I supposed to eat around the green lines? Is that mold?

I know nothing about Livarot, Chaource, Rocamadour. I only know I like American cheese, extra thin from Hiller’s, the butcher shop next to my pediatrician’s office, where my sore throat would serve as a good excuse for my mother to stock up on lunchmeat. Mr. Hiller would hand me a piece of white cheese straight from the slicer.  It was so thin, almost transparent, and I’d take it as a delicacy, allowing it to replace the wooden tongue-depressor taste lingering in my mouth.

“I KNOW NOTHING ABOUT LIVAROT, CHAOURCE, ROCAMADOUR.”

Dita’s father asks a question I cannot answer.  I apologize quietly, the first of many times in my life that I will lower my head, embarrassed that I don’t understand, or for asking where the bus station is or for a glass of water only in my native English. But then, after a moment, I say, a little too loudly, “Es tut mir leid!” I am sorry.  He nods encouragingly, his large red face resembling Santa Claus without the beard. We speak in simple, halted German about my family and then about their very long drive that night. He takes bread and a piece of Roquefort, eating the green parts as well as the white. I mimic him cautiously.  I pretend to like the taste.

On the other side of me, Loreline’s mother motions toward the food, and then begins to fill a napkin with hunks of cheese. She discreetly hands me the bundle, its corners pulled together like a bindle. I take tiny bites, cutting the magnificent salty tastes with wine, the sharp, perfect stings of tanginess with fruit. The voices around me flicker like light.

Eventually, biscuits and chocolate arrive, drawing together several side-talks into an overarching, if basic, conversation about cookies. Every phrase requires translation, but no one seems impatient. A treat is picked up and pointed to, named in a different voice, and then another. French, English, Czech, German, French, English. Nods, ja, yes, a cackle, and then more bread, more biscuits, the repetition of sounds setting the pace like a metronome against which I measure my future: learn new languages, eat new cheeses, become this kind of adult.

Jessica McCaughey is a writer and teacher living in Virginia.