Last Night We Threw the French Woman into the Lake

By Neal Graham

(7 February 2015) You may remember (or maybe not in the least), I have sometimes written about “the French woman” since I have been in Nicaragua.  I suppose because she is the only French woman I knew in Nicaragua (or anywhere, for that matter), I never felt the need to refer to her by her given name.  “Having breakfast with the French woman…the French woman has invited me to dinner…the French woman likes this wine…helped the French woman move to her new house where she plans to open a deli… the French woman worked for Amnesty International at one time.”  Her name was “Jacqueline.”  Zsa-kai-leen´.

Last night we threw the French woman into the Lake…well, not all of her…only the brown, slightly crystalized ashes that had been stored in a laquered box in Managua.  The last time I saw Jacqueline was shortly before I left Nicaragua in May of 2014.  I had access to an ancient Korean-made SUV (with a Mercedes-built engine), so I helped her move into a new house where she had planned to open a deli.  She had previously been operating a catering business called UE Gourmet (if you turn the UE around it stands for European Union in English) in which she featured a variety of dishes from different countries in the EU (or UE in most European languages).

Also in the moving party that day was Enrique, a doctor from Managua who had become a close friend of Jacqueline because he had studied in France and was fluent in the language.  The doctor had brought his double-cab pick-up and a couple of hired hombres to help with the load.  The hombres seemed quite surprised and impressed that I worked alongside them and carried equal shares of the furniture, books, bird cages (with birds), food items and unused catering supplies.  One of the hombres caught my eye, smiled, nodded and said, “oui, oui,” which I’m sure was an expression of approval and probably the extent of his knowledge of the French language.

Jacqueline was characteristically excited about the creation of her deli.  She would repaint the entire place in blue and gold, the colors of the European Union.  A couple nights later, Jacqueline invited me to dinner as an expression of her gratitude.  She had also filled my vehicle with gasoline the day before.  Another couple dined with us.  He (the male half of the couple) had shown up on moving day with tools to remove a door frame so the refrigerator would slide out.  I told him I was sure lucky someone with actual skills had come along.  All I could do was carry boxes and load them on the truck.

I didn’t see Jacqueline again after I left Nicaragua.  Once I was surprised to receive a voicemail from her on my US telephone (I also have one for Nicaragua, Barbados and Argentina).  Of course, I couldn’t return the call because I have never owned a telephone that could transmit calls out of its network (meaning to another country).  Sometime later, I received an email announcing the opening of the deli.  It was not Jacqueline’s personal email, but apparently one that had been set up for the business.  My subsequent attempts to communicate by email generated no response.

When I arrived in Granada in January, I immediately went to the house where I expected to find the deli…and Jacqueline.  There was a small sign above the door, but the house was never open.  I tried to call, but the call generated a strange little “ping” and then was disconnected.  My emails went unanswered:  “Jacqueline, when are you open?  I want to come and buy everything.”

After about a week, I decided to send an email to the unfamiliar address I had seen once before and had assumed was created for the business.  Almost immediately I received a reply from Michael, an Englishman who was a friend and business partner to Jacqueline.  He told me Jacqueline had died at home sometime during the previous November. She had spoken with a few friends about plans to take a short trip back to France and they assumed that is what she did.  Finally, after numerous expressions of concern from friends and neighbors, the police were called to enter the house.  Voilá.  Thankfully, someone who was close to the event said it appeared Jacqueline had died in her sleep.

I’m not sure who made the arrangements; probably the doctor in Managua, since he was the one who had the laquered box in his possession.  So last night a small group of Jaqueline’s friends met at Villas Mombacho, a restaurant on the shores of Lake Nicaragua, and filed into a small boat with an outboard motor to transport Jacqueline to her final resting place.  It was sunset and would be dark before we ended our journey and returned to the restaurant for a meal in Jaqueline’s honor.  The boat operator steered us on a wandering course, through narrow channels that passed between the hundreds of little islands that had been formed when Mombacho last erupted, throwing large pieces of burning earth and rock into the lake.  When we reached the spot the doctor thought appropriate for the “burial,” the operator maneuvered the boat into a downwind position (thankfully) and Jacqueline went flying into the sunset sky then drifted in a cloud that finally found the surface of the water. “Adieu, Jacqueline, au revoir!   Et bon voyage!”  C’est fini.

The celebration meal was quiet, but not particularly sad.  It quickly took on a “matter of fact” tone that moved from reviews of the food to memories of Jacqueline to a comparison of the various taxi fares we had paid to get there. I learned Jacqueline had experienced problems with suppliers and regulators and never really succeeded in getting the deli “off the ground.” One thought kept coming back into my mind.  What was it about this large, vivacious, out-spoken, sometimes brash woman, whose attitude towards all things American was typically French, who sometimes blew smoke in my face until the last year or so after she had hypnotized herself into quitting overnight (and she never took it up again). . . that I liked so much?  When Jaqueline called, I always went…and I always enjoyed her company and conversation…and her friends.

Then one person in our party used a word to describe Jaqueline that put everything into perspective for me: genuine.  Despite any personality traits or characteristics that might have been considered offputting, Jaqueline was genuine, no question.  Her boisterous welcome, her abundant hospitality, the joy that seemed to emanate from within at the presence of others, the energy with which she met all challenges, the excitement and optimism with which she faced each new venture or goal…all were genuine…and that is what shall be missed.

Au revoir, Jacqueline.  Repose en paix.