From Global Mom: A Memoir
(Continued from last post, “Monsieur B., Part II”)
It was late April. The whole world descends on Paris in April. Throngs walk the wrong way up the wrong roads on the banks of the Seine, missing the Musée d’Orsay entirely. They walk with maps flapping out of their back pockets or unfolded and held so high they miss steps and fall over poles or into potholes and get injured. They maneuver through the Louvre’s Grand Gallery, dodging other visitors who, on tippy toe and with upstretched arms, point their camera periscopes over the shuffling masses. They get pushed in the crowd past the Winged Victory and practically into the Mona Lisa and always seem to lean a few inches too close to the Delacroix or the Ingres or the Corot so the guards, hot and bothered with swollen ankles, have to lunge from their seats and bark a reprimand.
And who can blame a single soul for wanting to be a tourist? Paris, from April through September, is magnificent beyond what you’d ever imagine. It is because it is magnificent, and because everyone (including myself) is telling you it is, that everyone comes to Paris right then. And all of this can make this magnificent town miserable.
You can count on Paris being like this except in August, (again, a forewarning) when the residents of Paris go on vacation. Restaurants are closed, the cousin from Basel has stepped in to man the carousel in the Luxembourg gardens, the only good meal is at a tired fast food chain with lethargic-eyed, part-time fill-ins and napkins made of recycled mothballs. Streets are almost quiet compared to their September crush, which is called la rentrée—the school re-entry—and that school restart means the business restart which means the traffic restart when means the stress restart.
The sogginess of early April has evaporated, leaving the trees in front of the Église Americaine fluffy and bright, with splotches of sunlight dancing on the cobblestones upon which I am strolling. I’m strolling in head-to-toe seafoam green—heels and a linen suit—as an exception to my normal wardrobe, (jeans and ballet flats or black Converses) because I’ve just come home from an important appointment. It is barely chilly enough to wear a silk scarf. I’m in this linen outfit with its matching shoes and matching scarf, and I am strolling. Strolling our doggy Josephine, strolling la-dee-dah-dee-dahing je ne sais quoi-ing in full sun-speckled springtime ease along the Parisian sidewalks of my neighborhood.
This is one of those harmonious moments when I ache to grab those few people who hate Paris (or hate the French or French politics or what those folks claim is “snooty” politeness or “snotty” elegance or “pungent” crudeness) and, with my arms stretched wide above my head, say, “See? This is what we mean! Enraptured. Don’t tell me you’re not.”
Next thing, I hear voices. Loud voices. Voices speaking English. Fog-horning English.
The voices belong to two grown women. I see them approaching me. As I hear them and watch them, I keep walking my pooch and prancing delicately in my green heels, if you remember. And oh, did I forget to mention the large black sunglasses? While I promenade keeping a low sunglassed profile, I hear the amplified ladies coming closer. My breathing quickens. I zoom in on a particular cobblestone and whisper to Joey, “C’mon girl, do your business and let’s split.” Joey, though, has leisurely bowels. I turn my back to them as their voices approach. And when I do, I feel an essential part of me start to shift. But before things shift completely, I listen.
“Chill out! You never did get to reading maps right, girl. Now look right here. Look! You listnin? Look: this right here says Ei. Fel. Tow. Er. Eiffel Tower. Now I’m telling you, it’s somewhere close. Real close.” This woman yanks the map from the other woman, muttering just loudly enough for me to hear, “Shoulda nevah let you hold this thang in the first place.”
I focus on Joey, my canine distraction, twirling her leash around one hand, and put my cell phone to my ear pretending to be engrossed in the most important call of my life. They come closer. I’m lipping a fake conversation, trying to avoid that uncomfortable moment of being witness to fraternal street violence. I’m just not dressed for breaking up an assault.
“What you mean shoulda nevuh let me hold this thang? I swear you’re the one got us all lost up in those streets by Noter Damn. Think I’m gonna leave it up to you this time getting us to the Eiffel Tower? No way, girl. No. Way.”
They are acting like sisters. Or at least they’re dressed as such: both in tennis shorts in a pale color, and both in T-shirts with capped sleeves. Neon colored fanny packs. White, terry-cloth lined visors. The last three items listed, all with American flags that glittered. One of the sisters, the one who has spoken first, has nails I can see from this distance. A huge part of me wants to swoop in and strut with them arm-in-arm right down the street and to the Champs de Mars. But their anger at Paris seems beyond repair. Anything I might say will be rebuffed, useless.
I’d like to write that I considered a few approaches; “Hiya. You two look lost. Can I help?” or, “Hey, ladies, if you’re looking for the Eiffel Tower, I’d be happy—”
Those don’t enter my mind.
I straighten my shoulders, adjust my scarf, loosen my clench on Joey’s leash, drop my fake phone call into my handbag.
“’Ello?” I make my voice small and perfumy. The two stop bickering into their map and look up. “I am zo zorree,” I sing, “but I am zeeing you are een. . . trubbéll? I may ’elp you, non?”
“You. . .you from here? You French?” one woman asks, quieted.
“But oui!”, answers la Parisienne, who, smiling, extends her hand, stepping lightly in heels and pulling her Cockér with her. “Juste ovair zair! Zees ees my, ’ow you say?, neighbor-’ood? I zink? We are veree, veree luckee, are we not? We find each uzair?”
I smile. One of them smiles. Joey tilts her head. Seriously?
You see, I had this French thing down pat. I’d practiced this accent every time I’d found myself at a dinner table where language acquisition came up in the conversation (which happened in every single multicultural gathering), and friends occasionally gave their light jabs at the typical, broad, American accent with its cardboard corners and vowels as vast as the prairie. I just loved it when, at about the moment things got sufficiently mockful with people mimicking the wrooowerly broahwerly American accent, I could slip into the conversation in an English with the thickest Inspector Clouseau accent. Hardly comprehensible for all its curlicues deep in the throat, the impossible “th” sound, zee veree, veree, veree tight, uh, ’ow you say? wowel sounds, non? And I would then explain that I had yet to come across a full-blooded Frenchman, even among my friends who are ridiculously gifted linguists, who spoke English absolutely sans trace—without a trace—of a French accent.
So I am perfectly rehearsed for this street performer moment. In less time than it takes to spread a crêpe, I’ve made the fatal shift, consciously positioning myself to do one thing and one thing only: make these two fellow Americans fall desperately in love with this city, this country, with all things French. Even, if necessary, with moi.
“And-uh,” la Parisienne asks, escorting them to a bench, “Where-uh eez eet zat you bose leev? Amaireeca, I ’ope?”
We sit down together. I ’elp zem fold zeir map. Joey whimpers. “We’re from Detroit. Michigan. Know it? Here just a couple of days, you know, doing all of Europe in three—”
“Meecheegan? Detwah? But zees eez a veree, veree wondairful place. But, zut!, I do not know eet. I ’ave only been to, oh, ’ow you call eet? Zee Floreed? To Miameeee.” I slap both hands on my lap hoping they love Florida.
They nod, looking me a bit up and down. “We go to Lauderdale, Fort Lauderdale, mostly.”
“Ah, yes, zee Floreed. I love your countree, love zee peepel. Zo wondairful, zo friendlee”
The woman closest to me has fingernails, I can now see, with miniature frescoes painted on them, each an emblem of the U.S.A.: the Statute of Liberty; the Liberty Bell; the Flag; The first line of the constitution, “We the People. . .”
“Hiya, poochie,” she says, “you only speak French huh, girl?” and she reaches down to Joey, petting her head, which makes my heart trill a bit. The other woman is retying her Reeboks.
“Oh, yes, yes, oui, oui, I weel show you zee Tour Eefell. Eet eez veree close,” and I walk them to the corner, right under the windows of our apartment, down to the intersection of Rue de l’Universtié, then point. Joey drags her hind legs.
“You go-uh, ’ow you say een Eengleesh? straight on an zen, at zee end of zees road, you turn zee right. Voilà! You weel zee your Tour Eefell.”
By now both women are cooing at Joey while barraging me with questions about what the French think of America, Do they all hate us, they ask, is French food really so good, have I tasted snails, where can one get a good milkshake? Which questioning is just as well with me, since I am trying to keep my side of the conversation really low, knowing that at any moment a neighbor, Monsieur B. for instance, might walk out on the street for his afternoon promenade and bump right into me, la Poseur Parisienne.
Sweating under my scarf, I’m feeling duplicitous and conniving on one level, but patriotic and conniving on another. I know, as I walk these two endearing women to the corner, that I am doing my two countries, the U.S. of A. and la France, a magnanimous service.
“Ladeez, wen you come to zee end of zee road, I weel teach you zum zeeng I learned in Miamee. You know zees zeeng you zay een Engleesh, ‘toot-a-loo’?”
They nod, “Toot-a-loo, yeah.”
“Eet eez from zee Frensh! Een Frensh wee zay, ‘À tout à l’heure,’ weech eez to zay, ‘Zee you een zee ’our.’”
“No kidding! Ha! Toot-a-loo comes from France?”
“Now. Leesen: Wen you are to turn zee right-uh, you weel zay to me, “‘A tout a l’heure’. An zen I weel zay to you, ‘toot-a-loo.’ Good?”
I watch, nauseated and nervous with glee-guilt, as the two women saunter down Jean Nicot. There they go: fanny packs, Reeboks, visors, right past our boulangerie, past Luc’s best friend’s apartment across the street, all the way down to Rue St. Dominique.
All anyone can hear as they walk down the street bumping each other and laughing is the two of them hollering, “À tout à l’heure! À tout à l’heure!”
When they turn the corner, I am still standing there as I promised, my Joséphine on the leash, my scarf draped just so, my heels nipped neatly together, my arm waving and waving. “Toot-a-loo!” I sing to the women of Detroit. “Toooooot-a-looooooo!”