Sunday, September 18, 2011

Chapter 2: In Which We Discover Our Inner Sharks

One of the wonderful things about Paris are the views. Like this one:

Or like this one:

Or this:

Or this:

Or these:

These views are, as you know, easily accessed by walking. They are also, unlike most things in Paris, free. (I actually had a moment the other day where I walked into a clothing store in the Bastille, turned over a price tag on a pair of jeans and actually jumped up and down, squealing, "It's AFFORDABLE!" The jeans were $150. How quickly does one acclimate to the horrors of the Euro.) But if you decide to walk around Paris to take in the sights, you have a problem. The sights are everywhere and they don't stop. You could, as Sean and I have learned, simply just keep on walking.


Which is what we've been doing. For hours every day. For weeks, actually. Trudging, endlessly, from one great cathedral to the next, palace to palace, park to park, cafe to cafe. "It's like we're on a death march of beauty," I muttered, rubbing my calves which had now swollen to Popeye-like dimensions. Sean said nothing, busy as he was wiping the crumbs of his last pastry from his chin. This is the only time we stop: to find something we can stuff into our mouths before slogging off again. "If we stop, we'll die," Sean says. "We're the Paris sharks. Great white mouth-breathers of the deep."

I stopped walking for a moment to concentrate on maneuvering my enormous flan slice into my mouth just as a woman in a size 0 leather dress motored by in platform heels. She looked at me, looked at the flan, raised an eyebrow. "Oh, shit," I said, tossing my half-eaten slice of flan guiltily in the trash. "I'm fat."

"Not that fat," Sean soothed. "You bought something in an expensive store that proved it." Which is, sadly, true. All through the Marais I was so upset to find store after store with nothing larger than a size 36 hanging on the racks. At Comptoir des Cotonieres, in a panic, I seized the one and only dress in size 38 to see if it fit and was so relieved when it did, I bought it.

"You paid $200 just to prove you could fit into something in France," Sean sang as we waddled past the Louvre. "You are so stuuu-pid!"

"I don't care," I said grumpily, but blushed nonetheless. I could tell it was going to be a long few months of me buying random clothing that happened to fit: sweaters knitted with kitten faces, tartan skirts, beaded dresses made out of paisley fabric, insanely structured skirts. By December I was going to look like Camille Claudel just hit the thrift stores.

"Just ask for a larger size," Sean said. "They keep the other sizes in the back, to shame the fatties."

I know this. But this would mean shuffling up to the counter and gargling out some French. Something I can do only after massive psychological preparation on my part. I've always been like this about still-living languages: too chagrined about my accent and halting grammar to get past the

Wait: we have to take a break here. Jacque Brel's girlfriend is treating us to another concert. Brava, mademoiselle! Encore! Encore! And bravo to you, too, Jacques. Congratulations on your many evident skill sets!

stubborn shamelessness it seems is required to lean how to speak another language. In Korea, it was like this too. I'd hit one comprehension level, flounder, learn another grammar snippet, break through to some new level of speaking ability, flounder some more, pick something else up, then, well, hit a wall. The wall was how I knew I was coming--or not coming (unlike our fortunate mademoiselle upstairs, fnah fnah, who is coming all ze time!)--across. I hate sounding like a five year-old. And I hate waiting for the store keepers or waiters to be cruel about my French, tensing my neck a little each time one speaks to me in preparation for the inevitable onslaught that, weirdly, never comes. So far, no matter how bad my French, no one's been mean to me. Which makes me relieved and a little anxious. Like, wait a minute, why aren't you being mean to me? You're French! I'm paying good money in your country in order to be berated!

Of course, people immediately switch to English once they hear my French, maybe out of a gently pointed snobbery, maybe out of a need to hurry things along (hey, they have jobs to get do here), or maybe because they're a little thankful as there's a lot of people here who don't even attempt to speak French or who are coming from countries where the required second language is only English. I had a nice moment with a Korean woman the other day who came up and asked, in halting English, where a particular street was and I responded in Korean, at which point she let loose a flood of Korean that amounted to something like, "Holy cow, you speak Korean! Why do you speak Korean? Oh THANK GOD someone can speak Korean, I'm so tired all the time, I hate English, I'm still in France, my feet are fucking killing me, I'm getting fat from the flan and some woman in a leather dress just gave me this look, wait, WHY do you speak Korean?" until I finally had to calm her down and tell her that I had no idea what she was telling me.

Still, I'm surprised the French aren't nastier about having to speak (continually!) someone else's native language in their own city as Paris--even at the end of tourist season--is absolutely drowning in Americans.

But who knows what they're doing to my food when I turn my back?

Sean, in comparison, is a very good speaker. He's a fucking flood of French, which is both terrific and a hinderance, as it keeps me from speaking more than I should. I'm the one who sounds like a bad seal act, going up to the waiters and honking disconsolately until, out of pity, someone throws me a baked good. In order to placate my sense of guilt about this, I've been working on polishing my French reading skills, wandering around town studying all the placards, improving my vocabulary through close readings of the zoo's animal information cards (I now know the words for beehives, rain forest frogs and toads!) and the packaged food aisle at Monoprix. In this way I have learned that the word for turkey (dinde) is also the word for a stupid woman. "Time for a little dinde on dinde action, I see," Sean now chortles whenever he catches me eating a sandwich.

This week, to impress Sean, I'm reading two novellas translated into French by (of course) Ernest Hemingway about (of course) toreadors.

Why did I spend all those years learning ancient Greek exactly?

Anyway, should you come to Paris to find me, you'll see me trudging, gamely, around and around the various sites, mouthing to myself in French, taking in language in breathy snatches, making my way through the shoals of grammar, hundreds of new words and idioms breaking just over my head. I'm learning the language the way I'm learning Paris, by circling aimlessly, hour after hour, through the brasseries and museums and quartiers that make up this city. If I stop, I think I'm going to die.

"Hey, wait," Sean calls. "We forgot to take a picture of ourselves."

"I hate taking my picture. I hate the way I look in photos."

"You look bad in photos because you're always making weird expressions."

"No, I'm not!"

"Just relax and you'll look fine."

"You always say that and then I look like hell!"

"Well, open your eyes then and look at the damn camera."

"I am opening my eyes!"

"Stop moving!"

"I'm not moving!"

"Christ, just once I'd like to have a normal photo of the two of us. Are you ready, then? Are you ready?"

"Oh, just take the fucking picture already."


  1. Oh, everything's a death march to you. I encourage you (and Sean) to put Sainte Chapelle on your list. It's a gem-box of a chapel that seems like it's all stained glass. I like to see such spaces in the context of a service or concert, and conveniently they hold concerts there all the time. Wednesday, for instance, someone's doing Bach solo violin music, which would be incredible in that acoustical space. --Brian, a survivor of the Laphroaig death march to a gnarly couch overlooking the SLC valley

  2. Hey! They let people sit on the grass now??

  3. Hey Rachel:

    They occasionally DO let people sit on the grass! We found four patches today that we collapsed upon. Brian: I'm headed to the rat cancer joint tonight for dinner, and--depending on the new round of guests coming to Paris Wed.--will try and make Wednesday's concert. If not, the next week.