Language

Good Morning

This morning, the workmen are arguing about something. One guy has that bird-like chirping accent from the south of France, so he always goes up at the end of every sentence like he’s asking questions even when he’s yelling. His buddy drawls out his words in a deep baritone. Actually, they are loud and boorish, but since they’re speaking French, it sounds adorable to me.

After getting dressed and drinking another cup of coffee, there’s still a lot of yelling going on. I go to my window to investigate. The chirping man is standing in the bed of the truck. He’s shouting and thrusting his arms toward the sky.

IMG_0162

Morning in the neighborhood

I look up to see a toilet hanging on a rope. It’s coming right at me. The man in the truck yells out “Aïe! Aïe! Aïe!” which is French for “Why did you pick this moment, lady, to look out your window? Put your head back inside!”

The baritone is mumbling something. Lucky for me I can’t understand him; he’s probably cursing me for having too much curiosity.

I wave down to the man in the truck. He waves and smiles like we’re great friends now. I duck my head back in and watch the toilet go past my window.

 

 

Love in the afternoon

After walking a bit, I head toward Place des Vosges and consider Ma Bourgogne. I know this is considered a good bistrot, and might cost a bit, but I need some pleasure. I walk in and stand at the entrance. I try to sound confident as I say, “Bonjour monsieur, une personne” to the waiter, a man in his 60s. He nods and takes me straight to a place in the back of this cozy cafe with 17th-century stone walls. There is banquette seating along the back wall where he seats me. He hands me the large menu with a slight bow, then promptly leaves. A man and two women are seated next to me.

The pale pink cloth napkins have the words Ma Bourgogne stitched in white thread. The white plates show Ma Bourgogne printed in black. I see the typical red and yellow zig-zag pattern of Burgundy on the ceiling between dark wooden beams.

I’m starving so anything on the menu will do, but I decide, close the menu and lay it on the crisp white tablecloth.

Vous avez choisi?

Vous avez choisi?

 

 

I look out the window. I read my Kindle. I feel odd. Everyone else has a partner. I was so confident in my twenties and thirties. When I was younger, I could eat alone in a nice restaurant without thinking twice about it.

When the waiter returns, I speak French and it’s good I get no puzzled stare from him. I order the salade de tomatoes et haricots verts and also the risotto des poissons.

I try to read my book again. I hope I appear calm, but inside I’m screaming. I should have grabbed a take-away dinner and gone back to my room. What was I thinking to come here to a nice place all alone? Is everyone talking about me?

The waiter places the salad plate slowly onto the table in front of me. It’s a movement so gentle and careful, I feel as if he cares about me. I know that’s ridiculous, but that’s how it feels to have someone be so gentle with my salad.

The people next to me are speaking so softly in French, I can barely hear what they’re saying and I’m only three feet away from them. In fact, everyone is speaking so softly, it melts into a low, constant rumbling, like the purring of a well-oiled motor.

I feel my nerves begin to relax. The lights are low, the décor is dark, and I sink slowly into the sweet calm of this good French bistrot. Now I nibble on the vegetables like a contented rabbit in a quiet meadow.

When the waiter sees I’ve put my fork down and stopped eating, he quietly comes to my table.

Vous avez fini, madame?” he asks in a soft voice reserved for lovers and dying mothers.

Oui, monsieur, merci,” I purr at him, smiling. We are all purring now. He carefully takes my plate away as if it’s a fine objet d’art that he will return to the Louvre. He loves me. I know it. He comes back with a bowl of seafood risotto that he places before me carefully as if I am the Queen of Sheba. The bowl is the size of a large casserole dish.

Bon appétit, madame,” he says, bowing his head, and then leaving. No judgment, no attitude, no comment. This bowl is enormous. I hope he assumes I’ve been starving in the forest for days. I swirl the creamy concoction with my spoon, looking for seafood. The smell of la marine wafts up to my nostrils. I slip a chunk of lobster into my mouth and flavor explodes with rich cream, wine, butter, and this sweet flesh of the sea. Mmm, a scallop, here a mussel. I nibble like a drunken kitten with milk-covered whiskers.

He gently takes away the bowl, he asks if I want the dessert menu. I laugh. He smiles. This man doesn’t tell me dessert is bad for me. He loves me. He wants me to enjoy life. He thinks it would fine if I wanted some chocolate now. I love him with an undying love. I will never love a man as much as I love this man. But I know I must stop. Gluttony is a sin.

Oh, non, non, non ! C’est trop !” I say. (Oh, no! That’s too much!)

Voulez-vous un café, madame?” he asks, tilting his head to the side like a puppy. Yes, I do want a coffee, my darling, if only to see you tilt your head to the side again.

There is no struggle to get the check this time. As he takes away my empty espresso cup and saucer, he purrs quietly, “Quelque chose d’autre?” (Something else?) and in my stupor of lobster, cream sauce, wine and love, I manage to say “Non, monsieur. L’addition, s’il vous plait?”

He bows again before the queen and returns with the bill on a porcelain tray. I slowly pull euro notes from my wallet, and in a daze I lay the bills down, including an extra tip for him, because I know he loves me and I love him. Ours was a brief affair.

Obsession

I began my obsession with France when I was nine years old, and I blame Paul McCartney for it.

Just like millions of other young girls in February 1964, I watched The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show like an egret watching her nest.

I fell head over heels in love with those Liverpool boys, and Paul was my favorite. In the 1960s, the local newspaper often published photos of the Beatles coming out of hotels, in restaurants and walking through airports, so I pounced on the paper when my father was done with it.

I loved everything Paul loved. If I had ever seen a photo of him knitting, I would have knitted an afghan for our ’57 Chevy. Then, as fate would have it, in the newspaper there was a photo of Paul wearing a French beret.

Paul's beret

Paul’s beret

When he sang “Ces sont des mots qui vont très bien ensemble” in his song, Michelle, I reasoned that Paul McCartney would have never written that song nor worn that beret if he didn’t love France. Therefore, I loved France.

(Of course, as I grew older, I realized there were other valid reasons to appreciate France—the food, wine, art, literature, music, architecture, exciting cities and beautiful countryside.)

When I got a kitten at age ten, I named her Chat, which is the French word for “cat.” I had no idea the French were so vague about their final consonants. I should have pronounced it shah, but I pronounced it chatte, which means something naughty in French. Fortunately, no one in my neighborhood in Marietta, Georgia knew French slang.

My mother encouraged my obsession by buying me a beret and informing me that the President’s wife, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, spoke French. She said all sophisticated people knew how to speak French.

When I got to high school, they offered Spanish and Latin, but not French. So I went to the principal and asked why. He told me that no one would take French, so I gathered a group of friends to prove him wrong. We sat in the library after school, reading from a French book I found. We said sentences like “Je voudrais une tasse de thé” which came out like “Jee voudrash uni tassi duh thee.”

After a week of this, I went to the office where the gray-haired secretary was staring at her typewriter.

“Would you please let the principal know we’re studying French in the library?” I asked.

“Tell him yourself.” She sucked something out of her teeth while nodding toward his office. I went in. He was sitting behind his old metal desk, leaning over a copy of Deer & Ammo magazine.

“We are meeting in the library every afternoon to study French. You should come see us,” I said.

“I believe you,” he said, never taking his eyes off glossy photos of deer carcasses. But he did hire a French teacher the next year. They voted me President of the French Club and we put on a cabaret to raise money to buy a cassette player. We sold Sara Lee pastries and Sanka coffee in white Styrofoam cups.

I dressed up to look like the French cabaret singers I had seen in old movies. I was supposed to be Edith Piaf, but actually I had no idea what she looked like. I put together an outfit while rummaging in my mother’s closet–a tight black dress, black fishnet stockings, spiky black heels and a red feather boa. Hmm. Maybe I was channeling Leslie Caron from An American in Paris when I lip-synced a French song about needing my lover tonight.

When I danced and slipped the red boa around the principal’s neck, he blushed and tapped his foot nervously, knowing he would undoubtedly go to hell for having allowed this kind of thing in North Cobb High School.