I am in the Special Operations Executive because I can speak French and German and am good at making up stories, and I am a prisoner in the Ormaie Gestapo HQ because I have no sense of direction whatsoever. Bearing in mind that the people who trained me encouraged my blissful ignorance of airfields just so I couldn’t tell you such a thing if you did catch me, and not forgetting that I wasn’t even told the named of the airfield we took off from when I came here: let me remind you that I had been in France less than 48 hours before that obliging agent of yours had to stop me being run over by a French van full of French chickens because I’d looked the wrong way before crossing the street. Which shows how cunning the Gestapo are. “This person I’ve pulled from beneath the wheels of certain death was expecting traffic to travel on the left side of the road. Therefore she must be British, and is likely to have parachuted into Nazi-occupied France out of an Allied plane. I shall now arrest her as a spy.”
Elizabeth Wein, Code Name Verity, pp 6-7
I was zooming down the winding French highway, one hand on the gearshift as we climbed the foothills of the Alps and wound the way back down. Even as we followed the rolling curves of the French countryside I kept one eye on the black car a quarter mile ahead of me, and one eye on the speedometer. I could push it another 10, 15 kph to keep up with that black car, or I could trust that it would still be there, still two car lengths ahead. Following that car from the Geneva airport had already meant fudging a few French driving rules (I guessed, not having studied French driving rules before getting in the driver’s seat), had meant I’d had to apologize to my passengers for the salty language I let slip through my lips.
“Oh, putain,” I whispered as I watched the black car scoot over into the next lane. I zoomed ahead. I’d had that car marked for the last three hours. I wasn’t about to lose it now.
A few weeks ago I returned from a two-week group trip to France and Switzerland, organized by Presbyterian Women. It was the third time I’d gone as the group’s translator, and this time I felt like a spy.
Not that I didn’t belong in this group of twelve women from across the United States. This was the third time my friend Mary and I had taken a group of women to French-speaking Europe to learn about women in the Reformation and in the era of the Huguenot persecution, the third time we’d scaled all the steps in Old Geneva, the third time we’d introduced a group of American women to the French countryside. It was, however, the first time we’d skipped the train and driven from Geneva to Sommieres in southern France.
Driving on the open road in France is supremely exhilarating: most cars are manual transmission (driving stick is obviously key to driving like a badass—er, spy), and speeds are in kilometers not miles (driving at triple-digit speeds makes you feel like you are on a mission).
But if it was the first time we’d driven in France it was also the first time I felt like I had any business being in charge. Yes, Mary was the real group leader – she handled all the money and made sure we got where we needed to go, when we needed to get there – but I was the one who made sure we were understood and, in turn, that we all understood a little better the differences between the United States and Europe.
When we arrived in Geneva I told the group, “Expect things to be different.” It was the single best piece of advice I’d received when I first went to France in high school. In my experience travellers to Europe expect Europe to be just like the United States—after all, they’re not travelling to a developing nation or to a country that uses an indecipherable alphabet. It’s easy to be surprised when things are slightly different from what we’re used to: people using quieter voices in public spaces; strangers in the dining hall greeting you, wishing you good night; narrow streets; a new taste to the morning yogurt, which is not yogurt at all; an awareness of environmentally friendly habits; no soap in the hotel rooms; restaurants that are open only at mealtimes, not all the time; all the walking and all the wine. And, I learned, drivers in the left lane using their left turn signal to let you know that they are passing you on the left. (In case you don’t notice them zooming by you.)
It wouldn’t be fair to say that it was the first time people listened to me. Our first two groups were wonderful, made up of women who were sweet, savvy and smart. But in this third group I forgot that I was thirty years younger than the next-youngest woman. I forgot that I was the only one without children (heck, the only one without grandchildren) and I forgot to be self-conscious of my mumbly speech pattern, forgot to police my own behavior in the usual self-deprecating way. And it was only when I did remember these differences that they became apparent, and only then did I realize that I’d overlooked the little things—not age, not origin story, not religious understanding—but the really important things that bound our group together.
So even as I was driving like James Bond, I was reminded of the book Code Name Verity, in which the SOE spy is apprehended because she looks right before crossing the street. It’s the little things that give us away, and it’s the little things, like left turn signals in left lanes, that foster understanding. I was reminded, too, of Judi Dench’s M, the first female embodiment of James Bond’s boss. In Skyfall, M quotes the final lines of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem Ulysses:
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
On this trip I felt like I was channeling both Elizabeth Wein’s protagonist and Judi Dench’s M—one a young woman who gathers her courage for her country but is overcome by a little thing, and the other, an older woman who takes charge and takes comfort in a long line of hope. So while I kept an eye on Mary’s black car I forgot to turn on that left turn signal and our car was nearly run off the road by a semi truck barreling next to us. I gripped the wheel with both hands, swore a blue streak, and, strong in will, took charge.