You Speakin’ in English?

On an afternoon out with a one of our recent visitors, we were walking down the street speaking in English.  At one point, we wandered by a group of young men, all speaking in French, as we got close, one of them said, quite loudly, “Hello!  How are you?”  We smiled back but kept walking.  Later, we walked by an elderly gentlemen who was looking out his window, he was speaking to someone in the back of the house in French, but just as we passed, I heard a distinct “Hello!”  I said “Hello” back and smiled; he seemed satisfied.

This is a scenario that happens often.  If I am wandering the market with an English-speaking friend, the vendor might give me the price in English or say “thank you” instead of “merci”, even though I will speak to him in French.  Once, when I was standing in the line for the fromagerie with another Anglo, the young man in front of us turned around and explained every cheese that we should try and why…in perfect English.

This rarely happens when I am alone, even though it will be obvious that I am definitely an English speaker (maybe it’s a kind of tough love?); but when I am with other Anglos, it happens all the time.  I can imagine the conversations with their friends after we walk by…

“What?  You didn’t know I speak English.  I mean, doesn’t everyone speak English?  Mon dieu, the English can speak English so you know it cannot be hard.”

We walk by again.

“Hello,” waving wildly at us.  “I am fine, yes friends, good day!”

We smile awkwardly and keep walking.

”See?”  He will say this to his friends.  “I told you!”

Another visitor in from out of town was at the market on her first day in France.  She was standing in a crowded stall and at some point another patron gave her a gentle nudge so as to pass by on the aisle.

“Oh – sorry! ‘Scuze! Uh crap, pardon,” she said, alarmed.  She couldn’t quite remember the exact phrase and I could tell she was a bit unnerved by it.

The elderly man who had nudged past smiled kindly and professed, quite loudly, “you’re welcome!”  And then went on to choose his vegetables, looking extremely pleased with himself.  I could practically hear his internal thoughts, “nailed it!”

This exchange made me laugh and my friend looked utterly confused.  The man had no idea what he had actually said but he knew it was English and that was enough for him.

I know the reasons for these little tidbits of English being thrown around.  Mainly it is people excited to have the opportunity to practice speaking or in the case of the young men, excited to try to chat some girls up (…that’s right, ego, I said it) but it doesn’t really matter what the reason is; it always feels good and it always makes me smile.  When you are in a foreign country, hearing a bit of your mother tongue is sort of like someone winking at you or saying “cheers” without actually saying it.  It’s an unsolicited “you’re welcome” when you haven’t yet said “thank you”.

Jamais Deux Sans Trois

The French translation of the ‘rule of three’ is somewhat different than in English but the outcome is the same.

I am so organized, I thought to myself this morning as I reviewed my baggage for the 5th time before leaving for the train station.  MB has been in the Philippines for two weeks with work and I was leaving today to meet him there for my birthday.  My birthdays tend to be…well…unlucky.  Break-ups, revoked visas, lost jobs, etc., are par for the course.  So I hadn’t been surprised when my bus ticket confirmation didn’t come through on the internet.

“You know what this means?  I’m going to have to go to the station and in some other language try to figure out how to explain that I have paid for my ticket but never received it.  I don’t even know the word for received.”

“It will be fine,” responds MB via Skype.  “It will not be a problem, don’t worry.”

“Easy for you to say,” I reply.  “You know it’s almost birthday time.”

“Enough with the birthday thing; this is in your head!” 

“Is it, MB?  Is it?

He rolled his eyes.   

So yesterday, I trudged down to the bus station to try to sort out my ticket.  After 20 minutes of confused Franglish with two different staff members, we were finally able to figure out a solution.  It was a hassle but not major; and I felt good about the fact that I was able to accomplish it in another language.  Instead of patting myself on the back, however, I should have recognized it for what it was: #1. 

Fast forward to this morning as I am smugly looking over my already packed bags with time to spare.  I decide that I will go on and leave for the bus since there is no harm in being early (a mistake I will never make again).  I check my passport, bus ticket, airline ticket (our city is an hour from the international airport) one more time and then I’m off. 

Phew…it is a million degrees as I trudge through the street, dragging my two bags along with me.  The sweat is rolling down my back and I can feel my make-up melting off; why did I blow-dry my hair?  As soon as I arrive at the train station, I whip out my super nifty travel document case and begin fanning myself with my boarding pass print out.  10 minutes later, the bus arrives and I throw my bags on and pull out the novel I’m reading.  The journey is pleasant, the sky is blue, and the towns are charming; I’m on my way.  An hour later, as we are pulling into the airport, I unzip my bag to replace my novel when…what tha-where is my super nifty travel document case?!  For a few moments, I search, panicked, when all of a suddenly an image comes into my mind: an image of me, sitting on the bench at the bus station and setting my super nifty travel document case down next to me and not in my bags.  A wave of horror sweeps over me.  My flight is in 2 hours.

“Excusez-moi, Monsieur?”  The tremor is hardly hidden in my voice as the driver turns to look at me.

“Oui?”

Okay French class, now is your time to shine.

“J’ai oublie mon passeport a la gare,” sadly, I am too freaked out to even be proud of myself for remembering how to say that I forgot my passport at the station.  (apologies for lack of accent marks; I am on an American computer)

“Ah, c’est vrai?!” 

“Oui.  C’est vrai.”  Yes, it is true, yes, I am that person. 

He points me to the bus service kiosk and I scurry over with my bags (still sweating).  The lady behind the desk is kind and concerned and immediately phones the bus station.  A look of triumph passes her face, “Oui, they have it!”  She then asks me when my flight is and immediately her face changes.  The only bus that could have gotten it to me in time had already left. 

So, I am an hour away from home without a passport and an impending flight in an hour and a half.  I run to the airline service desk.  There are no more flights today; there is a flight tomorrow but it will cost 350 euro to change.  The tears well up in my eyes as I desperately try to hold it together.  After running to the internet kiosk to email MB and get his advice, I then run back (still sweating, by the way, I mean, why should France air-condition their airports?) and book the obscenely expensive ticket change.  Somehow, I am still not comprehending what is at work here.  This has been #2. 

Convinced that I have finally slain the disastrous beast that has been this day, I walk (sweating) with my bags to the hotel airport to get a room.  At least I can check-in and do some work and then tomorrow just wander back to the airport.    

Damn you, rule of 3!  Both of the airport hotels are booked solid.  I cry a little bit more (hey, why not?  I mean, I had already started) and then head back inside, dragging my suitcases behind me…sweating. 

I return to the lady at the bus kiosk.  “Ah oui!” She says. “Your passport, it comes soon.”  She points up at the clock. 

“Oui,” I say with a lopsided smile.  “I know, but I can’t get a flight until tomorrow and the hotels are booked so I need to buy a ticket back home.”  (this is all in my bad French)

Her look changes and I can tell she is sorry for me.  “But you know,” she says.  “You are very lucky!  What if they did not have your passport?!” 

She is so earnest and she is so right. 

I smile and laugh, “YES!  The silver lining, you are right, it could be much, much worse!”

She rings up my return ticket and hands it to me with a smile.  “Bonne chance, Mademoiselle!”  (good luck)

Luck is a funny thing; it is forever a two-sided coin.  On the one hand, there are the bad things, the annoying, irritating, horrible things in life that just sometimes happen.  But, on the other side, there are the great things, perfect weather when you need it, chance encounters with nice people, making it to your flight terminal just before they close the gate.  This morning, I felt like I had been given a three course meal of lemons.  The rule of 3 got me good and my birthday superstition proved its metal; but with a little help I managed to see the luck on the other side of the coin.  Nothing had happened that couldn’t be fixed; and in today’s world, that’s not a bad gift.  So this year for my birthday, instead of more gifts, I think I will settle for a nice, cool glass of lemonade.

Holiday Savagery: Would Ralph have survived bad traffic?

In the United States, holiday traffic can be frustrating and extremely unpleasant; in France, it is epic and terrifying. I know it seems unusual to apply the idea of ‘fear’ to traffic but let me assure you that it is accurate, even the traffic radio station (which primarily plays horrible French songs and only updates about every 20 minutes) seems frightened by it; in one update I heard, the announcer finished with, “to all you drivers, I wish you good luck!” It had the same somber tone as a general sending troops into combat and knowing that they weren’t coming back. Once, when I lived in New Orleans, I had to evacuate for a hurricane; the whole city emptied onto the highway at the same time. This weekend was worse.

France is smaller than Texas but has almost 3 times the population. So imagine if you put 62 million people in Texas and then put them all on holiday, oh, and add 8 thousand toll stations; the result is a 4 lane highway gridlocked for anywhere from 200 to 600km.

After four hours of sitting in traffic, MB and I decided that we would beat the system by going onto the smaller national highway…apparently the rest of France had the same idea.

“I hope this wasn’t a mistake.” I look at the row of red break lights in front of us.

“No, I think this will be better. I mean, look at the highway?” MB responds, ever the optimist.

I look back at the highway behind us and see the interminable line of cars that are not moving. “Yes, okay, this is definitely better.”

20 minutes later we are still inching our way along the same off-ramp and have realized that just beyond the ramp is yet another toll station, putting the traffic to an almost complete standstill.

“What is up with the toll stations? It is ridiculous! I mean, the second traffic starts moving there is a toll station to screw it all up again!” My blood pressure is starting to rise and like any good girlfriend I take MB along with me for the journey.

“Oui, I know! It is ridiculous (in MB phonetics: reed-deek-cue-los)! Why do they think this makes sense? There should be a pass so you can drive through; it is like the middle (meedle) ages!”

40 minutes later.

“Hey!” I scream this. “Is that guy serious? Um…no way, no way! Do NOT let him in!” We have finally inched our way within about 10 cars from the pay stop and now rogue drivers keep coming from the side and skipping the line.

“Pffff…are you joking? No way! These people (eye roll), we sit for one hour and they think they can just-”

“MOTHER F*CKER! Are you f*cking kidding me?!” The car in front of us lets the interloper in. MB falls on the horn, I flip the bird. It’s like Lord of the Flies, one person has disrupted the order of civilization by skipping the line and we both revert to being savages. I can practically see the smoke coming out of MB’s ears and I keep grabbing handfuls of my hair.

After about an hour and a half of torture, relief finally came in the form of a two lane (sometimes one lane) route that we found, past both the highway and the national highway. It is the scenic route that passes through Provence and the Rhone. Normal tones of voices returned and curse words dissipated as we got farther away from the crowds. We found a small café and had a cup of coffee; there were no other cars and the only other patrons were a group of older gentlemen drinking pastis and playing cards. The next 3 hours were spent driving by Roman ruins, vineyards, and through mountain passes; we chatted cheerily and continually congratulated ourselves on what a good decision we had made.

Strange that it took an escape from civilization to return us to behaving in a civilized fashion.

Will you be my friend? Check ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

 “What are you doing?”  I bury my face in my hands.  “Oh my god, you are so embarrassing!”

“Quoi?” replies my boyfriend (his typical response to everything).  He is standing on the edge of a group of people at a bar, looking at them but saying nothing.

“You are practically stalking them, stop!  Seriously, come back to the table.”  I am whispering in that loud, half-scream whisper, my eyes widened for impact. 

 “What is your problem?  I was trying to see what they were saying.  They seem cool.”  He says, once he has reluctantly returned to our table. 

“I know they seem cool but you can’t force it!  You have to let them come to us, ya know?”  I say this just as someone from the group looks our way.  I flash the supposed “cool kid” an overly friendly smile and get nothing in return.  “Ugh.  This place is stupid; we’re not going to meet anyone.”

 “Hey, what about that guy we met last weekend, let’s text him,” my boyfriend suggests.

“I don’t know; do you think it’s too soon?  I don’t want to scare him off.”

“Yeah, maybe…” 

We take a sip of wine and ponder this momentarily.

“No, I mean, he seemed to like us, right?  I think we can text.” 

Ahhh…the human ability to rationalize.  

I have found that making friends in a new city is very much like trying to date.  You go to the bars that you think the desired people will be, and then sit close to them in hopes of there being some incident that will allow you to start a conversation; you smile too easily and too often at too many people.  You force yourself to go out even when you are tired because you might meet someone, and you think hard about when and under what pretext you should contact a new person so that you don’t seem too needy.

My boyfriend and I are currently in the midst of this struggle, constantly trying to think of ways that we can meet more people.  But, the reality is that we just have to be patient and go with the flow.  The general consensus seems to be that it takes about 3-6 months to make friends when you move to a new city (a period of time that you magically forget ever existed after you have made friends) and you never know how it is going to happen.  I’ve met friends at apartment visits, while getting pedicures, even a walk around the block has turned into an impromptu dinner with strangers.  You can’t predict the “when” or the “how” but it is always when you least expect it. 

So, we will continue to endure and await the unexpected, but until then, stay alert and watch out, we might be stalking at a bar near you.