Par hasard: A brief story on luck and language

Par hasard. That’s one of my favorite French phrases (say that five times fast). It means, literally, by chance. Last night, that phrase defined what was supposed to be a ho-hum trip to the U.S. (from across the border in Mexico, which is de rigueur for anyone with a passport or visa in this part of this world). I accompanied my parents to drop off their travel permits at the immigration office because they’re Mexican citizens and can’t travel farther into the U.S. after a certain point without this particular permit. I wasn’t thinking of going, but my mom insisted. Ok, fine.

When we arrived, the officer asked my parents what they had used the permits for. My mom, who has a knack for answering questions that are not asked, proceeded to explain that I had just graduated from college in Pennsylvania and then gabbed about my accomplishments and my majors, journalism and French. “French? She speaks French?” the official asked, his eyes blazing. “Yes, French,” my mom affirmed proudly. The official then smiled and said he needed a French translator that very moment. Mind you, this is the U.S.-Mexico border. The only French spoken is confined either to a classroom or to the perfume section at a department store.

He asked me if I’d mind serving as a translator for two detainees from la Côte d’Ivoire, or the Ivory Coast. I didn’t even blink or think. I just accepted his request, which is atypical of me. I’m the kind who likes to mull things over and who suddenly feels sick at the thought of having to perform an important task. But I didn’t feel scared, not even among immigration officials, who generally  have a rather terrible reputation (which, unfortunately, is exacerbated by the media).

The official unlocked the door and escorted me into the office, where two tall men stood silently. Three other officers joined us, and instead of waiting for a thumbs up or something, I just began asking questions. “Vous parlez francais seulement? Pas l’anglais? Pas l’espagnol?” They replied that they only spoke French. Ok, just checking.

Question by question their story unraveled. They had escaped the Ivory Coast three years ago, while the country was embroiled in political wars (and just now I realized that I’d written about the most recent Gbagbo/Ouattara dispute for a French class). The shorter man said he had been studying in Cuba, but had finished his studies and didn’t know where to go because his family had disappeared back home. His cousin, the taller man, whose brother had been killed, said he went to Cuba to pick him up, and from there both traveled to Guatemala, a pit stop before coming to the U.S. to supposedly meet friends and relatives (whom they didn’t know where they were or how to contact). From Guatemala to the U.S., they did menial labor to survive each day until they reached the promised land. But, as one of the immigration officials told me, their documents were forged (or something along those lines). That same official asked me to let them know that from here on they were subject to an investigation and that I beg them to be honest. I told them twice, and they nodded.

So there I was translating all of this information and trying to remember and refresh my recently rusty French. Aside from some incorrect conjugations and lapses in vocabulary, I think it went well. The immigration officers profusely thanked me, and just couldn’t quite believe the serendipity of the whole situation. Apparently, translators at that hour (it was about 10 p.m.) are nowhere to be found, not even for immigration cases. They asked for a copy of my license and my phone number so that they could inquire about jobs (like I said, my mom likes to talk.) One told me he wanted me to work for the CIA. Tu parles! I wanted to tell him. I don’t think he would have understood, though.

So, as I was about to leave, I yelled at the two nameless detainees  “bonne chance!”

Chance, or luck, evidently is everywhere, especially when you least expect it.

2 thoughts on “Par hasard: A brief story on luck and language

  1. Great story and great writing, Liz! You’re going to make a great journalist. By the way, your French is flawless.

  2. A fascinating story Liz! Living on the U.S.-Mexico border sure does have its moments of surprise and wonder. This particular story represents just that! I have enjoyed reading your blog, you not only have unique things to say, but unique ways of expressing your thoughts. Good work!

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