Today: a guest post from a friend of mine here in Paris. Pringle Franklin is another parent from our girls’ school here and hails from Charleston, S.C. She and her family have been in Paris for a few years now and she’s an inspiration to me to make the most of our time here.
I must be turning into a French woman.
Today at lunch, in a casual cafe in the village of Poissy, my eyes literally filled with tears because my roasted leg of guinea fowl was cooked to perfection. Crispy skin, savory and delicious, with moist tender dark meat underneath–the combination almost made me weep. That, along with the hand-cut french fries that had been twice fried in duck fat, and the skinny haricot vert that tasted of sweet butter yet without being heavy or greasy, forced me to suggest to my husband that I might never agree to leave the terroirs of La France.
“Remember when we went to lunch that day in Germany, in that cute little patio garden on the Mosel?” I said to Sam. “I ordered the baked ham, and it was so tough and fatty that I could hardly eat it. The entire meal was blah, just blah! How lucky we are to be in France. I mean, we eat wonderful food all the time. That is just how it is here!”
We were sitting at a table for two at the far end of Le Zinc Cafe, in a small town that lies about 30 minutes southwest of Paris. We had taken the RER train out for an afternoon excursion and had soon found ourselves engaged in that most serious of activities: sniffing out un bon restaurant. The l’ardoise du jour (chalkboard menu) tempted us inside by offering an appealing 3-course menu for 15 euros (you would pay at least double for that in Paris). The cafe had an authentic zinc bar up front, with a few regulars already standing around drinking glasses of wine at 2 p.m. The lunch crowd occupied most of the small tables, a good sign that this undiscovered-by-the-guidebooks spot was popular with the locals. It was the kind of place where a grandmother pushing a baby stroller popped in for an espresso before heading back out to the park. Very authentic.
The staff here did not speak English, allowing us to enjoy the experience of managing the entire situation in French. We prefer it this way but sometimes, in Paris, a helpful waiter will simply roll into English after hearing our accents. Admittedly, this happens less often these days, but I am still relieved when I travel far enough from the big city to interact with French people who are not used to talking with tourists. They always seem wonderfully surprised that we are able to manage it, and the smiles that they give us (and the relief on their faces) makes me feel like I’ve just been handed a gold medal for linguistics. By contrast, in Paris where so many ex-pats are fluent, our brave but awkward French does not impress the shop keepers or waiters. “You could do better,” they seem to suggest with a raised eyebrow.
But in the suburbs or countryside, the reaction is the reverse. When we were skiing in the Alps, the receptionist at the hotel was stunned that I could tell him my room number in French (trois cent cinq). His eyes became large as saucers, and he congratulated me. I accepted his praise like a child getting a gold star from her teacher. After I had relayed the episode to Sam, I added, “Of course that man has no idea that I have been living in Paris for the past year-and-a-half! If he did, he wouldn’t be so impressed. But compared to the tourists who have just flown in from Britain, I must sound pretty darn good!”
While my French remains a work in progress, I find myself acting more like a Parisienne every day. Apparently it is much easier to absorb the French mindset than to master those vowel sounds. Besides shedding joyful tears over my meals, I am shopping at the funky vintage stores and pairing pieces of clothing together that I would never have considered wearing in Charleston. Leggings can mix with a short dress, covered by a swede shirt, tied off with a leather belt. Or a second-hand men’s blue velvet vest can pair with an elegant black velvet skirt, high-heeled boots, and a houndstooth blazer. And hats–all kinds of hats! The options are endless. Today, I saw a woman wearing a fuchsia crushed velvet fedora near our Metro station. “You know,” I told Sam, “in the U.S., that would be considered a pimp hat, but it works here. It actually looked good on her.”
Who is this person that I am becoming? Last night, I was explaining the whole choreography of the bonjours to a newcomer to Paris. We giggled at how the French take this standard greeting so seriously. Yet tonight I found myself insisting on exchanging the scripted words with a new cashier at our Simply Market. This guy was French, in his 20s, and when it was my time to check out, he did not say bonsoir to me. I stood there and waited, and he just looked at me. Without even realizing it, I puffed myself up like a pea hen and said, “Bonsoir,” stretching out the rrrs at the end and rolling it out with a flourish, to emphasize that this ritual of politeness could not be neglected. The cashier just blinked. I waited. He blinked again, but he said nothing. A French lady of about my age was in the line just ahead of me. She smiled at me, giving me an encouraging look that implied: that’s right madame, you show him how it’s done.
It was her approving look that woke me up to my entrenched position. I had automatically begun to feel offended that this kid that not exchanged the prescribed greetings. Sacre bleu! What is the world coming to these days?
I snapped out of it and proceeded to bag my groceries (you have to do this yourself in Paris) and tell the cashier the name of the strange green thing that he needed to ring up (“schoo kyle“/curly kale). As we marched through the necessities of the exchange and completed the purchase, the cashier was perfectly nice and appropriately focused on his job; I could see that he was not a creep. He was not “mal eleve” (poorly raised). He had just missed a beat in the daily dance. And I am attentive to the rhythm of life here that it threw me off.
Now, I will never pick up the cigarette habit or fully understand the French need to go on strike, but I find my cultural assumptions have shifted dramatically. What will I find myself doing next?