Having spent quite a lot of time in Paris now, I feel very lucky to be able to say that I haven’t often fallen victim to the ‘the French’ and their ‘Frenchness’. I’m frequently asked how I manage with their aloofness and rude ways, and to be honest, I find them quite friendly and accomodating – maybe it’s because I’m usually on my own, I’m not sure. Or perhaps I’m delusional. All, are possiblities.
Waiters in restaurants smile and taunt me with English as much as I ask them to speak in French, but this is to be expected (its no secret that I speak English, really) and, with a certain amount of determination I usually win and am presented with a French menu upon complete insistence. I battle my way through quite basic conversations- my theory is that I will never speak French if I dont make an effort to make it my business to do so.
Two days ago I skipped out of Galleries Lafayette with a new suitcase and a new found confidence after the sales assistant was complimentary of my abysmal effort – reassuring me that I could do it and I just had, when I told him that I speak only a small amount of French, ‘you are speaking French now,’ he reminded me. Last week in another episode en français where I apologised for being something of a half wit, I was reminded again that I just had to persist and that I was doing well. These types of interactions with French people make it all the more easy and I must remind myself, that these positive interactions are far more common that not.
Until last night, when I had my first true moment (out of a million moments in France and in French) where my confidence was thrown to the Seine and my inhibitions challenged. I’d welcomed Dad earlier in the day and we’d walked for almost 19 kilometres, taking in the Jardin du Luxembourg, the Jardin des Touleries, the Jardin du Palais Royal before a delicious lunch at Cafe Marly on the edge of the Louvre courtyard. This was all topped off with a meander home across the pont des Arts with the Eiffel Tower to our right- exhausted, and for him, beginning to really feel the pinch of jet lag after almost 25 hours in the sky the previous day.
Later that night we sat down for a drink after an afternoon siesta and we were joined by my uncle and his wife, they too had flown in that day and the chatter (as you may imagine) was pretty rapid, and at all times in English. I ‘bandied’ a bit of French around with the waiter and at one stage asked him if we could have a menu for some food. ‘WHAT,’ he barked, in English and almost aghast (as if I’d asked if he could clean my shoes), ‘YOU need everything in English, read this,’ before thrusting a menu at me as if it was on fire and about to burn his precious hands.
I can be a bit sensitive at the best of times, I cower in the corner if I see ‘les pompiers’ in the streets in fear that if something so handsome spoke to me, I’d probably just have to lay down on the pavement and close my eyes, and on previous visits to Paris, I’ve quite simply just not done things in the fear that I’ll make a mistake. After many visits to this city over the years, followed by the past two winters spent here being committed to this ‘challenge,’ I arrived back 3 weeks ago with no particular end date in sight and I have to say, I’m getting better at giving everything a go. I constantly remind myself that I’m not here to be afraid, quite the opposite. This experience is designed to be a turning point in my life, a book mark if you like, in the many chapters already written- marking an exciting time where I set out to achieve things that perhaps five years ago, I would never have imagined possible nor a reality. My life could have turned out very differently.
‘I would like the French menu,’ I stuttered in English, before adding in French, ‘I need to practice my French- please.’ Ill prepared for such an experience and not used to such behaviour, I lost my way and had I not been with three people who I love dearly and who were making my day by simply being there in that moment (and making me laugh as we reminisced about too many things to even make mention), I probably would have come home last night and written an email to myself titled ‘why?’.
Why would you leave home and all the things you love; why would you make your life complicated when it could be so simple; why would you put yourself through this linguistic torture when you are funny and happy in a language that is familiar, and quiet and shy in a language that is challenging and SO DARN COMPLICATED. Well, I know the answer to all of these questions and hence, the email was never written and today was a new day filled with many happy interactions with the people who fill this city, and with the added bonus of having mon cher père (my dear father) by my side. We listened to the beginning of mass at sacré cœur after a long walk up the hill from St Germain to Montmartre, before taking the metro to the Marais where we had lunch at Cafe Hugo on the edge of my favourite square in Paris, Place des Vosges. Afterwards, we visited Victor Hugo’s apartment and listened intently to a rented earpiece as it described a life so fulfilled and interesting- all of this information singling out yet another legacy left in a city that I have really grown to love.
Tonight, Dad and I sat at Le Hibou (the owl) which is one of my favourite cafes in Paris. We reflected on the day over a well earned cold apéritive, and the waiter was as friendly and charming as I have become so accustomed. After giving him a thumbnail of French (still scarred but suitably bandaged!), he looked at me and smiled ‘you will order in French,’ before skipping away, leaving us to decide on what to have for dinner at the end of another wonderful day together.
On the subject of owls, it takes a certain amount of wisdom to successfully manage whatever life throws at you. And, while I’m not exactly performing rocket science, nor am I undergoing childbirth or coming to terms with ill health, it is all relevant to this particular moment in time – each little ‘loss’ will ultimately turn out to be a win. And that is why I try not to ask ‘why’, rather, I remind myself that I just ‘will’.
This whole experience is not about speaking French, nor is it about even trying to understand the French system (I must just quietly add, that each would be an added bonus should they ever come to fruition) – its about a personal challenge, ignoring the things I ‘havent’ achieved and accessing those that I may have once thought un achievable.
Van Gogh wrote ‘normality is a paved road- it is comfortable to walk, but no flowers grow on it.’ I’ve seen this quote twice this week and right now, in this moment in time, it couldn’t be more true.
Pictured: home as I made my approach tonight, the sun still well and truly up at 8.30pm. The top right hand window (open) is where I sit as I type this post.