Sometimes i say “au revoir” when i mean “bonjour,” & sometimes i say “merci” when i mean “s’il vous plaît.” Generally when this happens, the person i’m speaking to doesn’t even permit the ghost of a smile.
Dear server, dear barista, dear clerk at the museum, please smile when i say the opposite of what i mean!
Most of my interactions consist of the simplest, most basic requests. “I would like a hot chocolate please;” “I would like six mushrooms, a leek, a lettuce, & two carrots;” or “A table for one person please.”
Things get a little trickier when i buy two avocados from the fruit & vegetable stand in the Marché St. Martin where the seller—a young curly-haired man who almost-smiles at my shy yet stalwart attempts to communicate—inevitably wants to know if i want to eat them today or tomorrow. “One for today & the other for tomorrow…” This is a complicated exchange.
Oddly enough, simple though they be, these interactions have become precious to me—not because my French is coming back or improving, nor because each small “success” gives me a nudge toward what i may be too timid otherwise to attempt.
Rather, they’re precious because they are, however brief, however mundane, points of contact. Little groundings in the human world for one who easily drifts off, who’s easily captured by the interior life & held more or less safe–but isolated–there…
i’m struck by how public life, the life of the streets of Paris in particular, animates Apollinaire’s poems. In this, they are not unlike our own dear Whitman…
One family carries a red comforter the way you carry your heart /That comforter and our dreams are equally unreal /Some of the immigrants move in here and stay / In the hovels on the rue des Ecouffes or rue des Rosiers / I’ve often seen them taking the evening air…*
One of my now-daily interactions concerns a young woman who sits on the corner of Rue du Château d’Eau & Rue Lucien Sampaix, just where i turn to take my morning walk to the canal.
She wears a white head-scarf, a heavy light-blue jacket & long skirt & sits in all weather, even the recent snow, her well-used to-go cup on the sidewalk. Something about her face reminds me of paintings by Corot, but maybe this is only because i find myself wondering what she thinks about all day, the same way i wonder about the women in those paintings, their interior lives.
“Bonjour, Madame,” she says to me. “Bonjour,” i say. & as i pass “Bonne journée,” she says with a lilt. If I knew how, i would ask her—what? Like, how much does she need for the day in order to feel like she can go home–or are things more complicated than that?
On Tuesday when it had just started to snow, i went to the cinema to see The Darkest Hour. At first it seemed i’d be the only one at the 1:20 pm showing—which i admit felt discouraging. Sitting rapt in a dark theater with strangers is a kind of intimacy after all.
Then a group of teenagers noisily straggled in. Laughter, jostling, calling to one another across the seats… As a few girls took the seats between me & the aisle, one of them spoke to me—i think she was apologizing for the stir they were creating—wrecking my solitude, as it were. i wish i could have told her how grateful i was they’d come!
Eventually we had a little conversation, their command of English being far superior to my tenuous & limited French. Turns out a couple of them were somewhat interested in why i was there, with my notebook in my lap, sketching before they came in—pretty good one of them pronounced. & i was definitely interested in them—what were they doing here in the middle of a school day?
It seems half the class had gone off to the Alps skiing, & the other half stayed in Paris & were having their history lessons reinforced via this outing along the Canal St. Martin in the snow & an Oscar-contending film.
i got it—these were the kids whose families couldn’t afford to send them skiing, or who didn’t care about the glitz & glamor of the slopes, who were maybe even contemptuous of it. They were the shy kids, the geeks & artists. My people.
*from “Zone,” by Guillaume Apollinaire, translated by Ron Padgett