by Janet Pollock Millar
Ten hours ago, we’d entered a French bubble on the runway at YVR. As soon as we’d boarded the Air France plane in scent-free Vancouver, I’d enjoyed wafts of Guerlain as the crew walked the aisles, tending to our needs. A pale October sun now breaks day at Charles-de Gaulle, and they’re transformed. Their French is no longer remarkable to me. Nor is mine; in fact, it’s become lesser—no longer a noted western Canadian linguistic effort but simply awkward. I’m a novice witch as words fumble out of my mouth in approximate magic spells and get us what we need: customs, luggage retrieval, location and embarkment of the train to the Gare de Nord.
We lug our suitcases off the train and up the escalators, afraid to stop and get our bearings lest we look even more vulnerable to pickpockets. We head straight out the nearest door and walk 20 minutes in the wrong direction, dragging the suitcases along the narrow, cobbled sidewalks. I run over someone’s foot and expect a tirade, receiving instead a “pardon” as I instantly offer the same. Eventually, we reorient ourselves and head back in the direction of the hotel. We’ve been awake for 20 hours. I’m gathering my courage to ask if we can leave our luggage at the hotel while we go to a coffee shop until check-in time, but I’ve been reading up on French culture and have been warned not to be too demanding, in the North American way.
We locate our hotel, a six-storey three-star, and trundle through the front door. Behind the front desk is a slender man in his early forties. I exchange the expected greetings, then stammer through my request, all in French.
“Of course!” he replies—in French, which I take as a victory in itself. “In fact, your room is vacant. But first, leave your bags and come have something to drink.” He leads us through to a small breakfast room and serves us glasses of freshly squeezed orange juice, tells us to take our time. Jazz plays softly on the stereo as we sit gratefully. Once refreshed, we exchange information at the desk, and Alexandre accompanies us and our bags into a tiny elevator and up to our room, complimenting me on my “excellent French.” What French I have is hard-won. I studied it in high school but let it lapse until I was 42, when I decided to become bilingual—in anglophone British Columbia—even if it took me the rest of my life, which it will. I’m determined to use this time in France to speak it no matter what, but I apologize to Alexandre for my lack of skill. I have heard that Parisians are intolerant of having their language mangled and will most often switch to English when presented with someone like me. However, Alexandre ducks his head and tells me, “It’s easier for me if we speak French.” I’m sure he’s simply humoring me, especially when I later hear him speak excellent English to someone else.
Once in our room, we brush our teeth and sleep for several hours, awakening in late afternoon. We’re hungry but wary of going out. Afraid to manoeuver in this language, afraid of the pickpockets, afraid of cranky waiters. Mild courage is in order again; we go downstairs to the front desk, where a younger man is now on duty. We will learn later that his name is David and he speaks, reads, and writes French, Ukrainian, English, and Japanese. I acknowledge that it’s early to be thinking about dinner but offer our jet lag as an explanation. In response, David recommends an all-day café down the street.
At Odette et Amélie, we are seated by a window that looks on to the sidewalk, where people sit at small tables, smoking and drinking either wine or coffee. We’ve read that the prix fixe menu is the way to save money, but we don’t yet know that this is true only if one is a big eater to begin with. We enjoy our large meal, pleased at the civility of not having the bill dropped on the table unrequested. I plan to pay with a credit card, but I want to ask for some small denominations of cash to have on hand. Again, I’m uncertain whether or not this is “done,” and if it isn’t, I’ll never know, as my request is fulfilled in a relaxed and cordial manner. We go back to the hotel and sleep, again. As night falls, the Tour Montparnasse twinkles from across the city. We leave the curtains open and it is our nightlight: I learn a new word, veilleuse.
For the next two days, we walk for miles through Paris. In an attempt not to look like a tourist, I have eschewed sensible footwear and am attired all in black, with the exception of red leather ballet flats. I don’t stop to consider how I would never set out on a 10-mile hike in such shoes at home. Metro stops are ubiquitous but I am intimidated by the language that will be required by my self-imposed immersion restrictions and by other, more amorphous fears. When I can stand the foot pain no longer, I approach one of the front desk staff at our hotel and ask how to go about buying metro tickets. Encouraged, we do so, and wonder why it took us so long. In rush hour, however, the trains are packed and it can be difficult to get to the door at our stop. On one occasion, I offer, “excusez-moi, Madame” to the woman between me and the door but fail to understand her response, and she doesn’t budge. I stubbornly repeat my request and finally understand her answer—curt this time. Due to an utter lack of space, she waits until the train stops, gets off to let me out, then gets back on, giving a slight nod to my sheepish, “Merci, Madame.”
On our wedding anniversary, we spend the day roaming the city, now with the aid of the metro. The sun blesses us with its presence, as does the smell of chestnuts being roasted in the street outside Galleries Lafayette. We find and pay homage to the Eiffel Tower, take the requisite grinning selfie. The most impressive view is from underneath, looking up into the spans of the iron girders. In the late afternoon we return to our room, think of ordering champagne. I notice that there are only plastic beakers in the room. My experience with certain mid-range North American hotel chains suggests I should specify some proper glasses with the champagne, and I do, as politely as possible, in person at the front desk. David smiles graciously. I feel like a barbarian when the champagne is delivered on an elegant tray to our room a short time later, two flutes wrapped prettily in cellophane and ribbon, accompanied by a small bowl of nuts. Of course. We go out to our narrow balcony, pour the champagne and toast each other, soaking up the sun and looking south across the city.
For dinner we walk to a nearby restaurant, which I found by sifting through reviews on the French language Trip Advisor, hoping to find a place beloved for something other than its portion size. It’s a Tuesday evening, so the restaurant is relatively quiet. We are seated at a lovely table upstairs and introduced to a brand of pastis we’ve not had before. Although monolingual himself, my husband supports my language quest, so I speak with the waiter only in French throughout the meal. Later on he’s able to take the time to chat with us, in both French and English. We finish the meal with two eclairs, the like of which we’ve never had before, made in-house by his brother, a pastry chef.
We stay in Paris for a week. Near the end, I’m speaking with Alexandre and a woman employee at the front desk of our hotel, and he teases me that I sound like a Belgian because of the way I pronounce both t’s in “vingt-huit.” The woman smiles at us, and I laugh out loud. I sound like a Belgian! Not an anglophone trying to speak French.