I was once a human food slave. I labored for hours bringing steaming substance to lazy people from a kitchen no more than 30 feet away. I painted a smile across my face and reapplied it in the bathroom should it start to melt from sweat. I laughed at bad jokes, tossed napkins and straws like bullets and grenades, I balanced like squirrel on a wire and danced like a monkey for the crowd. The strangers rewarded me with little pieces of dirty green paper which I hoarded away somewhere too much of a hassle to reach. With time I’d made myself a nice little pile.
Two years and two restaurants later I found myself carrying the weight of a baby elephant on my back across Europe. This elephant had failed to forget to pack anything but probably remembered too much. We travelled via plane, train and a couple of busses through rain, sun, and… well really just rain and sun.
I was the first in my immediate family to leave the country. Being a one upper and show off, having paid for it all myself, I went ahead and touched eight countries in one month.
My last week was spent entirely alone in Paris France. My friend who had been going to school in Europe at the time had abandoned me. Her reasoning was simple; been there done that.
There was only one point in time in which I successfully got by with parlant français (speaking French.) It was on my way out of the Louvre actually. I was walking past the various overpriced gift shops when I suddenly noticed all the shimmery mirage of candy through the sweets shop window, more importantly the tasty eye candy behind the counter.
He is tall, lean, with stubble my favorite sandpaper coating his chin and jaw that could have been sculpted by Michelangelo, shy shiny sexy movie star smile, and he had good hair. (Probably gay.)
Despite lacking any hunger I enter the store and try not to drool (or leak any other body fluids) at the handsome French boy working there.
I stalk around the floor like an obese cat who’d never hunted in all its life. I make at least three circles around the small store; think Mr. Magoo not jaws.
My mind is racing hard but failing to come up with anything interesting, just like NASCAR. I am struggling to recall what little French I had studied.
So there I stood: Blonde haired American born, great granddaughter of a German guy studying French in an Indian restaurant.
In my hand is a worn little book titled “French for the Traveler.” Big Black letters on a flimsy purple cardboard cover.
“Ja Suis toureest,” I practiced to myself.
I asked the chair where the bathroom was in French ignoring that it definitely spoke English if not Hindi. At least it lacked the communication skills to complain, though at the time, I it most likely absorbed more of the French language than my brain.
“Et Merde!” (Oh Shit!) I yelled when I stubbed my toe accidently kicking that very chair. (Probably deserved it smug French speaking furniture.) I had thought that attempting to integrate what little I knew into my everyday life would help me to get into an instinctual habit of speaking the language. It did not.
Upon arriving in France I became so terrified of pronouncing my words poorly I ended up speaking entirely in English and then just bullshitting when I could.
There I stood attempting to mime the Mona Lisa. Start by using your hands to shape the invisible frame around you and then place yourself right in the invisible middle of it. Wear an expression of boredom and slight constipation and you got it.
Actually most people in Paris can understand English though they do glare with the hatred of a thousand burning suns. At least I didn’t sound like a muddled alien with my pronunciation and besides you can really get quite the tan from a thousand burning suns.
In that gift shop of Carrousel du Louvre where I had lingered like a stalker I did in fact end up buying some candy.
My Bonbons were red hot Oo la la how suggestive.
The boy at the counter rang me out speaking only in French. His voice was smooth and intoxicating as Disaronno on the rocks. I gazed at him in much the same manner normal customers looked at the candies. In my head I am forming the one and only dirty sentence that I know.
Oh mon amour J’ai besoin de vous toucher.… (Oh my love I need to touch you.) Not my first choice but at the time that was about the only sentence I could form. I catch myself mouthing it unconsciously, brought to my attention by the other customers leaving the store in an alarmed hurry.
Suddenly he is asking me something. I stare at him with the blank idiocy of a hamster on acid.
Then I notice the receipt in his hand.
“Oh,” I say. “Pas important.” I grab my bag quickly and suddenly feel very proud and excited to have successfully spoken French to a real French person and a total beau hottie on top of all that.
It had been a perfect moment. Except that I was so happy and self-satisfied with myself that I spun around too quickly and knocked into a shelf which sent bonbons rolling down like an avalanche of failure onto my feet. All those years a server slave still a clumsy carrot.
“Et Merde!” And then I drew a blank on how to apologize in French. The cute guy stared at me expectantly so I did what any sensible English speaking young woman would do, with most the world thinking as they do of Americans, French and American relations in general being what they are, my family’s expectations as the first to cross the ocean since Grandpa, my own pride in studying a language and successfully communicating… All this was on the line in an intense moment of terrible horrible truth and… I literally ran out of the store and never looked back.
-Kate E Lore, Contributor