I don’t speak French. Margot, my French travel buddy, speaks French but this weekend she is far away in Pao. I’ve been to Paris just once before. That last trip was four days and mostly spent wandering with my family in the Louvre and Musee de Orsay. On this sequence of journeys I could have gone pretty much anywhere else in Europe. I picked Paris. I ended up in Gare du Nord at 8PM, with an address I couldn’t even pronounce correctly and two hours to kill before I could go meet my host.
I had a lot of good chat that I spouted off before actually arriving. I was “excited to travel alone,” and “eating by yourself is great for your imagination and people watching.” Also, “I’m friendly and brave,” so figuring out communication, “would be awkward but possible”… you know, a whole lot of shit. I wandered for a good 20 minutes around Pigelle trying to avoid just eating in Nord or at the Brasserie named, “Brasserie du Nord.” I just seemed wrong. Unfortunately, I also felt wrong wandering around the sketchy neighborhood with my big backpack. Unfortunately, I didn’t think to ask the taxi driver to take me to the neighborhood where Sylviane was supposed to meet me later to let me into her apartment; I might have had more luck with real restaurants there.
As it was, things could have been worse. I left my very big luggage in ‘left baggage’, which was a big effort just in itself. Usually you hand over bags to nice people that watch them and you pay. Here, you put Euros into a combination locker that later opens (when you push the right button) and all of the instructions on the locker are in French. I had a charades conversation with the man running the bag-scanning machine that makes sure you aren’t leaving bombs in the station, and I finally figured out how to use the huge metal lockers. He thought I was a big idiot. When he handed me my receipt with the combination to the locker he said, with a very accentuated serious eyes look, “DON’T LOSE.” Ok. Don’t lose. I proceeded to immediately, as in still in front of him, unthinkingly shove the paper into the clutter of my purse, gasp, pull it out, smooth it and mime to him that I was putting it safely into my wallet. I’m a big idiot.
After my wander around Pigelle that proved what James’s father had warned, that I probably shouldn’t really wander there by myself, I went to dinner at Brasserie du Nord. They handed me the French menu and I spent another 20 minutes trying to decipher what things meant while looking like I was just a very meticulous orderer–who also happens to carry a large backpack and a translation book just for fun. Eventually, I gave up and picked Sole. I know what that is and I know it has butter. Or maybe not… The waiter smiled, happy to finally get to take my order and then asked me (in French) if I wanted it grilled or buttered. Is that now an option in France? I did my best to pretend, again, to be picky and very concerned with taste, while I desperately tried to think whether I knew either of those words or any of their roots. Nope. I shrugged, pointed, and repeated the first word in a very hesitant accent. He looked confused and held up one finger, “wait.” Another waiter came and asked, in perfect English, “would you like the fish grilled or with butter.” So embarrassing. Butter. Definitely butter. And I’ll also have a freaking glass of wine too. And yes it WILL be red. I know I’m ordering fish. Thanks.
I also defiantly ordered another glass of wine, cheese, coffee, and desert. I did break down and pull out my “France” book in order to read a little during dinner because I got tired of staring around the restaurant and pretending to be austere. Whatever, I already looked like a tourist. Ultimately, the wine must have helped because I walked out with some pride that I had managed to do survive. I was also a little more relaxed. The hardest is over now, I thought, now I get to go to my new French home.
I met Sylviane at one of her friend’s apartments. The group of adults all spoke English to say hi to me and then, sadly, continued in French. They are old friends so I understand they were having lovely conversation. Why would they want to bother speaking so I could understand? I tried to smile and laugh at the appropriate times but mainly sat with my legs crossed looking awkward and dumb. The group kept erupting in giggles and then turning to me and nodding like I understood. No, I told you, I really don’t speak French. Why would I lie? Because, why the hell else would I decide to come to France for a month?
Sylviane drove me, and my successfully re-acquired luggage (the assistant seemed proud of my learning curve when I correctly typed in my locker code), back to her house. My room there is nice and she lives close to the metro back into central Paris. She asked about my mother, who had the connections that finagled me this place (thanks mom!) , and showed me the kitchen and the laundry. She smoked about a million cigarettes while clipping at top speed around her home in really, really high heels. When Sylviane left me to catch up on the countless amounts of work that are a plague on all of her fun, I unpacked and reviewed my next day plan to head for Musee Rodin. Then, I though maybe I would make a return trip to the Orsay, one of the reasons I loved my first experience in Paris so much. Suddenly, dread sirens flared in my head when I realized that tomorrow I’d have to speak even more “no-French.” Yes that is a little known, oft envied, though not incredibly practical language in my repertoire. Time for more defiance, or maybe denial: I am excited to wander around art, admire store windows, order one of the only things I can say, “fromage,” and lounge about just thinking, drinking coffee, and, at the very least, looking French until I open my mouth. Small victories.