Love and beauty… on the métro?

Everyone has a story about riding the métro in Paris.

It’s convenient, efficient, and can get you all over the city. I’ve seen wonderful musicians playing on the trains and in the corridors. But it can be dirty and often smells. Sometimes passed-out drunks practically have entire cars to themselves as their stench wards people off. Four times I’ve witnessed, in the words of a friend here, “the infamous métro puppet show” that a certain guy puts on at the end of the car with his ratty puppets, a curtain held up with a bungee cord, and an ancient crackling boombox. I’ve even seen a guy grab a woman’s cell phone and make a run for it.

And then there was the crazy experience of not understanding the announcement from the driver, not realizing everyone had to get off, and before I knew it the train had left the station and pulled into a holding area to park! Fortunately I wasn’t the only unaware idiot and enough of us made enough of a racket, pounding on the doors, that the driver finally drove the train ahead to a platform to let us out.

But today, I share a different kind of métro story from my friend Samantha, another expat at my church here in Paris. A story of beauty. Of humanity. Of love. Here are her words:

I was riding the metro and watched as a blind woman was helped inside by another woman. Her stop was the same as mine and I watched again as the other woman told the blind woman when to get off and which direction to go for the connecting metro. I wanted to help her, but was held back by my lack of confidence in French. However, seconds later, I watched as an older gentleman walking the same direction asked the young blind woman if he could guide her to the next metro. They walked arm in arm the whole way there. The blind woman and myself got off at the same stop again. I considered trying to help her, but couldn’t remember any of the French words I needed to use. Sure enough, I watched another woman approach her and offer to guide her.

Watching this blind woman being passed from person to person was one of the most beautiful displays of love I’ve ever seen. There are a lot of bad things happening in our world right now, but there are a lot of really amazing things happening too.

So true.

I, for one, will miss the métro when we move back to Seattle.

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Lost in translation

Prague.

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It’s spring break, so that means getting out of Paris for a few days. I pretend to be a local in France, although my accent and my minuscule vocabulary quickly give me away. In the Czech Republic I’m a tourist all the way, Rick Steves guidebook and all. In France I do my best to decipher the French menu; in Prague I don’t even try. But spending a few days here has confirmed it: I have made progress in learning French. Because Czech looks uttery foreign and, for the most part, impenetrable, while many things I see in French I can at least get the gist of.

Our first day here, we were faced with this menu item:

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What could it be? The translation was on the next page:

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I don’t think that means what they think it means!

If you’ve ever traveled overseas at all, you’ve probably seen other, even worse translation gaffes. I joke that I could make a full time job out of fixing faulty translations in shops and restaurants. But the more I struggle to learn French, the more sympathy I have for everyone else navigating two (or three or even more) languages. And I’m appreciating more and more what a privilege it is to speak English. Not much here is translated into French. Or Italian. Or Spanish. Back in Paris, nothing is translated into Czech. English trumps them all.

Language: A rich and varied garden of words, idioms, and expressions. Meanings and connotations and shades of nuance branching out from roots that reach down through history and culture. I gripe about pronunciation conundrums in French, but imagine what it must be like for English learners to keep the pronunciation of these words straight:

Through. Though. Thought. Trough. Rough. Drought. Bough.

Or these:

Look. Loop. Book. Toot. Soot.

We have plenty of irregular verbs to keep things interesting:

Buy. Bought. Go. Went. Gone.

And then there are phrasal verbs. You learn the verb “to throw,” but good luck with throw out, throw down, and throw up. Or put down, put up, put in, and put out. Sometimes I’m amazed people of different languages can communicate with each other at all!

Our first night here in Prague, we went out to dinner with my friend Max, who has lived here since September. He took us to a nice place on an island in the river across from the National Theater. I skipped the grilled pork chop with flab and went for the duck leg with spätzle, including some bits of bacon encased in spätzle! After our tasty meal, our friendly, patient, and most helpful waitress pulled Max aside to apologize for her poor English. Poor English? Are you kidding me? She spoke perfectly fine for communicating with tourists trying to order dinner. I could tell her command of English was miles better than my French, and likely better than Max’s Czech.

Max wasn’t surprised, saying such humility was common here. Well, I’ll tell you this: no waiter in France has ever made such an apology to me for their English. They’re too busy correcting my French.

Becoming French

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.

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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!”

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The meal that I cried over.

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?

Mugging on the métro

Ten seconds. Ten seconds—if even that—and the moment was over, the only thing left to do was head home.

FullSizeRenderI had just caught the métro at the Dupleix station in the fifteenth arrondissement. Blue skies, bright sun, but only a few degrees above freezing. It was 3:40 in the afternoon and I only had to go two stops on line 6.

I’d spent the last hour or so at a little bakery where you can get a coffee without paying extra to sit at a table. Nice! (But really, what’s wrong with that place—don’t they know they can charge at least an extra euro for that?) Sixty minutes of organizing a whole load of documents I’ve created over the last year full of backstory material, character notes, and world-building ideas. I’m a little over a month into working through the second draft of my novel, and when you’re inventing a fictional world from scratch, there’s no shortage of things to keep track of—technology, architecture, history, religion, even just what kind of things people eat for dinner… and on and on and on. It had been a good session but I was ready to shift gears. I was even thinking it might be good to write another blog post. You know, set the sprawling multi-year project aside for a bit and write something fun.

So: laptop packed up, scarf wrapped tight, baguette for tonight’s dinner in hand, on the way to the Passy stop. Throughout most of Paris the metro runs underground, but this stretch is elevated above the street and affords some nice views, even crossing over the Seine just southwest of the Eiffel Tower. It was a typically quiet ride. People almost never talk much on the métro; when I do catch snippets of conversations it’s as likely to be among tourists as not.

I found a place in the front of the car where the folding seats are as well as a pair of vertical poles to hold on to. It wasn’t particularly crowded. I easily could have found a seat, but for such a short trip I didn’t bother, so I was leaning against the front wall of the car. Sitting on one of the folding seats was a woman with a mane of curly hair spilling over her scarf, tapping away on her phone. Texting, or surfing the internet, I didn’t notice, but whatever it was, she was very intent. Across from her, a youngish guy slumped in his seat, hardly anything distinguishable about him under his big winter coat. A middle-aged man with thinning black hair got on and I stepped back to give him some room. The doors closed and we sped off to the next stop: Bir-Hakeim, the one closest to the Tower.

We got to the station and the doors opened. I was facing the open doors, not particularly focusing on anything as a few people stepped into the car. And then: a blur of movement burst into my peripheral vision and I spun my head to see the young man in the big coat rushing the woman and then he instantly tore away and lunged out doors and onto the platform. Immediately she was yelling. But it wasn’t a scream; he hadn’t hurt her. It was shock, it was alarm—it was anger. And then I realized what I’d seen: he’d snatched her phone right out of her hands and was running away with it.

Those who had gotten into the car poured right back out and a moment later at least three people had the thief pinned against the wall of the platform. The woman got right into the fray and ripped her phone back out of his hands, all the time berating him in a steady stream of loud, angry French.

It’s still hard for me to understand spoken French; Parisians in particular are known for speaking so quickly that comprehension can be a challenge for novices like me. So I didn’t catch a word of the torrent of outrage that she was blasting the young man with. But her tone of voice, her body language? That I understood.

Ten seconds: that’s all it took from the time he grabbed the phone out of her hand to the time she tore it from his. I was still on the métro, still stunned by what I’d just seen. I looked down and noticed a small shopping bag on the floor where she’d been sitting. It appeared to be a few frozen meals. I picked it up and joined the circle surrounding the would-be thief. One of the men holding him was dialing on his phone, calling the police, I assumed. The woman was still venting her anger. When she took a breath I held up the bag to her. “Excusez-moi…” She took the bag, turned back to the young man and started in again. I watched for another moment and then got back on the métro.

The buzzer sounded, the doors closed, and we pulled out. The Seine was soon passing beneath us, the Eiffel Tower standing starkly against a cloudless sky. I got off at the next stop and walked the few blocks home.

As I made my way, it occurred to me: if the thief had just timed his crime better he might have gotten away with it. If he had grabbed the woman’s phone when the buzzer sounded, he could have dashed through the closing doors and been running down the platform before people knew what had happened. For her sake, I’m glad he hadn’t thought of that.

I can still picture the look on his face as he stood on the platform, held by the Good Samaritans. He didn’t look like a hardened criminal. He didn’t look like anyone who would even make me nervous or make me check that my wallet was still in my pocket. He looked like a kid who had just gotten a bad grade on a test or who had been scolded for not making his bed. It was hard for me to tell how old he was. Sixteen? Twenty? Should he have been in school? Did he have a bed? Had he done this kind of thing before? He didn’t look homeless, but whatever his situation, I’m sure I wouldn’t want to trade places with him. What would happen to him now? I have no idea.

It’s a bit ironic: this morning I was perusing a forum where people were discussing an area in the outskirts of Paris known for pickpockets, where you probably don’t want to go alone at night, and where you need to have your wits about you at any time. But there’s a great cathedral there, so it’s on my list. I was thinking of going out there today, but decided to save it for another time.

Instead I stayed close to home, on familiar turf. And witnessed something I’d never seen before. Bad things can happen anywhere, anytime. Paris learned that lesson last year. I was reminded of it again today.