Our Parisian adventure began when we got off our Delta flight and met our French Uber driver Qamar Hussain wearing a Yankees baseball cap. It was 8 a.m. local time. We hadn’t eaten since our snack of Corn Flakes and Cheerios several hours earlier.
Qamar led us to his Toyota Corolla, loaded our luggage and drove us to the nearest Denny’s where we got some authentic French toast and some terrible coffee.
A brief but terrifying two-hour drive convinced me that France was full of terrorists and they were all on the road that morning.
We checked into our hotel. The mademoiselle who checked us in assured us that there was a fan in our room because the extreme heat was overwhelming the air conditioning. The fan, she promised us in the cutest French accent, would keep us comfortable. It didn’t, but we were in Paris, so we didn’t care.
We left the hotel looking for lunch. We could see Norte Dame from the front of the hotel. We walked toward the magnificent old cathedral, eager to for a French lunch in her shadow. We didn’t have to look far. We found a Subway with a view of the bell tower. I got turkey. My wife got Italian. We joked about hearing Quasimodo playing the bells while we enjoyed our sandwiches. Paris can’t help being romantic.
Satisfied with our sojourn into French cuisine, we headed for adventure. We made a bee line for the nearest souvenir shop. We bought berets for our heads, post cards for our friends and snow globes for our kids.
We bought some Ben & Jerry’s ice cream in the ice cream shoppe next door.
I found a Calvin and Hobbs collection I hadn’t read in years in a book store that sold only books in English.
We walked at least a kilometer. That’s a thousand meters. I don’t know how many that is in miles, but I’m sure it’s at least ten.
We finished our day with a “Whop-aire” from a typically French McDonalds. I tried to order Le Quartre Kilogrammer, but the high school student behind the counter seemed to be afflicted with some condition that required her to giggle whenever I spoke French. Her manager had more control and served us our “Whop-aires” and, I swear, fried apples. They tasted like fried potatoes, but she called them “pommes” (apples) “frites” (fried).
Tired but happy we staggered back to the hotel in time to enjoy The Daily Show in English with French subtitles, la fin perfect to the first day of our French vacation.
I can still recite the five sentences I learned in my first French class more than 40 years ago. My brother, my sisters, and many of my high school classmates can all recite those five sentences with me. We never forget some things.
Other things are not so easy to retrieve.
My wife and I spent almost three weeks in Europe this summer, starting with a week in Paris. We wanted our first dinner to be memorable, so we asked the concierge to recommend a French restaurant where we could get a real French meal. She pulled out a map and gave us terrific directions which we had no trouble following.
After dinner, I had duck, my wife had lamb, I decided I needed a peach from the open air market across the street from the restaurant. My wife, who is good at that sort of thing, picked me a ready-to-eat peach. I had been practicing my high school French all evening. With confidence I handed the peach to the vender and said, “S’il vous plaît?”
He smiled at me and said, something in French
I said, “Oui,” which seemed to work.
He said something else in French as he weighed my peach. I smiled and handed him a 20 Euro note, hoping the peach would cost less than 20 Euros. (The exchange rate made 20 Euros about $22.00)
He gave me my change and added more information in French. This time he gestured toward his face. I got it. He was telling me the peach was going to be juicy.
I reached back to my high school days and said in perfect French, “Avez-vous une nappe?” I was rock solid on the first part. I was pretty sure about the last word. I knew it had something to do with food. I was sure Mr. Kingston, my high school French teacher, would have been proud of me.
It turned out I was asking for a tablecloth.
The vender grinned at me and said something in French. The only word I caught was pique-nique which wasn’t in my high school French vocabulary, but sounded enough like my English vocabulary that I was able to puzzle it out.
I grinned back and said, “Non, non, non, non. Excusez-moi.” I thought and I thought and I thought while my wife tried valiantly to rescue me by hauling me down the street. I finally came up with, “Avez-vous une couche?”
That time I accidentally asked for a diaper.
The vender grinned even wider and said something else in French, the only word I caught was “serviette.” I was halfway down the block before I realized he had been trying to help me. “Serviette” is napkin. I wanted to go back and buy another peach, but my wife, who is smarter than I am at such times, persuaded me that I could buy another peach some other time.
There is so much to see and do, so many places to eat and so many fruit stands in Paris that we never made it back to that one. In the end, I got a delicious peach and a story to share with my friends; I got to practice my high school French; and a friendly Parisian fruit merchant got a story to share with his friends about an American who needs both a tablecloth and a diaper to eat a peach.
Win. Win. Win.