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Yours sincerely, a stranger

When we’re young, we’re taught not to talk to strangers. As the years have passed, not much has changed; I never pick up the phone when an unknown number calls. I assume it’s telemarketing or someone who has dialled the wrong number. I never even phone them back. It’s the same with emails. When someone unknown emails me, I expect it’s phishing or a scam. In fact, our email accounts are programmed to automatically send these types of email to our junk folders.

But a couple of years ago, one email escaped this fate. It was an email that proved to be more important than its sender could have imagined. An email that has formed a beautiful story and has been able to connect the past and the present.

There are moments in life when someone is talking to you but the words go in one ear and straight out the other. That is the beginning of this story for me. It’s August 2017. I was going on holiday with my parents after my university graduation. I had had an intense final year, so I was ready to do nothing other than sleep on a beach and read the pile of books I had accumulated over the year, during which I’d not had the time to open even one. As we were packing, my Dad started to tell me a story about an email he had received. But my Dad isn’t one to tell the short version of a story. So I asked him to forward me this email that had made such an impression on him and I would read it when I was a bit more relaxed and could actually concentrate on it.

A few days later, and the holiday is off to a great start. Apart from the fact that I’m sharing a room with my parents, as if I were 3 years old and not twenty-three. But it doesn’t matter, except that they take an insane amount of time to do things. One night, I was waiting for them as they were getting ready to go out for dinner. I had been ready for 30 minutes already, and was sitting and waiting on my camper bed. That’s when I decided to read this email that my Dad had harped on about so much.

As I’m reading, I’m intrigued to learn that the sender, a writer and translator who lives not far from my parents, has just read a French book whose writer had spent some time in London as an au pair for the Portner family, who lived on Kenver Avenue. He writes that the book’s author mentions two sons, Brian (12) and Jonathan (8). The most charming thing is that he has sent us this email for the sole reason of letting my Dad know that this book exists.

Whilst my Mum is busy blow-drying her hair and my Dad shaving, I comment out loud as I make my way through the email. And then I arrive at the most important sentence of the email, in which this kind stranger reveals the name of the author: Annie Duchesne as a young girl, now known as Annie Ernaux.

“WHAT?! I KNOW THIS WOMAN!” I shout with excitement. The hairdryer and razor are immediately switched off. Confused, my parents ask me to elaborate. I explain to them that, OK, I don’t know her personally, but that I had studied her books at university and she was one of my favourite French authors. In fact, I had even written a creative writing piece inspired by one of her books.

We can’t believe it: around 60 years ago, Annie Ernaux moved to my grandparents’ house to be an au pair for my Dad and uncle. Almost 60 years later, there’s me, a languages student in Scotland, who reads this women’s books thanks to my professor, Elise Hugueny-Léger. It turns out that Elise had read the book that mentions my family and our family name without having put two and two together. It ended up being a stranger that informed us that this existed, out of pure altruism.

And so we return to email, where we describe the chain of events to Elise, who passes it on to Annie. And then I receive an email from Annie herself. It’s in this moment that the circle is complete; the past and the present are reconnected. Annie writes to us in French, and as my Dad only knows a few words (bonjour, merci, l’addition s’il vous plaît), I translate the emails for him. We split our emails in two to be able to share our personal messages: me, an admirer of Anne’s work, wanting to express the impact that her books have had on me; my Dad, in search of more memories of his now late parents. And so a beautiful exchange of memories and small stories is created between us. Me, I’m the mediator, as Annie calls me. And as the mediator, I decide that it’s about time to properly connect the past and the present. We therefore ask Annie if she would be interested in meeting us in Paris. To our delight, she said yes.

Ten months after receiving the email from the stranger, here we are, my Dad and me, in Paris. It’s a beautiful day and we arrive early at the café we’re supposed to meet at. There’s a woman seated on the terrace and my Dad asks if that’s Annie, but I know it’s not. All of a sudden, another woman appears and walks directly towards us. There’s no doubt in my mind that that’s Annie. We hug each other and laugh before making our way inside to be able to talk without interruption from the noisy street.

Credit: Hannah Portner

The meeting is unforgettable. Annie has the most incredible memory; almost 60 years later, she still remembers the exact placement of each piece of furniture in my grandparents’ house, the names of various members of my family, and a mass of other small details. Her recounts bring back memories for my Dad, who was very young at the time. It’s moving for us all, but it’s equally spectacular that we are all reunited: Annie and my Dad after so many years, and Annie and me after a few years of me admiring her books. When it’s time to say goodbye, we promise that next time we’ll meet in London, returning to the place where this story began.

When I asked my boss to take a few days off work, he told me that I should go on a trip to Paris with a boyfriend, not my Dad. But this was much more than just a trip to Paris. It was not only the opportunity to travel through time, but also to create a bridge between the past and the present. And all that thanks to the email from a stranger.



Previously unpublished text by Hannah Portner, first published here on 11 April 2019.