They hate Americans, smoke, wear berets, fool around on their women, believe in their innate supremacy, and pretend they don’t speak English. “Seriously, they are nice,” I try to persuade my friends. “I love the French.” I still do. Although this week, lurking right in my neighborhood which I adore, I collided with the stereotype. Short, dowdy, a bit hunched, 70 – or more likely 80, pulling a plaid, wheelie shopping cart – she was completely miscast as a Frenchwoman, let alone the villian.
At the market on Oberkampf, the vendors are older, French, and more often than not really don’t speak English. I shop in French, a novelty which has faded with time. But in the back row, stretched along the far side of Richard Lenoir, is a row of vendors who are darker, younger, more exotic than the other vendors. I assume they may be Moroccan, as they resemble my French teacher, Reda. When I walk by, they switch from their French hawking (“Fresh melons! Cheap peaches!”) and call out, “Honey, I will speak English to you.”
Really? You will? My French speaking neurons work overtime, they crackle like the electrical adapter when I plug it into the two round pronged hole. It’s amazing we both don’t burst into flames. I don’t care how fresh your cherries are, did you say you will speak English to me?
As I approach one vendor, the place I generally buy my watermelon, an older French woman – the villain previously described, is completing her transaction. She hisses, “Don’t do that. Don’t speak English to them.” She doesn’t say“to her” but “to them”. Who are “them”? Americans? Non-French speakers? Tourists? Anyone but the French? The vendor shoots me a troubled look. He wonders if I understood. He motions apologetically, unsuccessfully in an effort to calm me down.
At this point, let me digress – a flashback five years ago to my French classes at the Alliance Francaise in Denver. This is where I learned to swear, ultimately mastering swearing in a way in which I never tackled speaking – thanks to Michael, a German doctor (a doctor!), who attended class with me for several semesters. His wife, also German, had studied at the Sorbonne and apparently degreed in French swearing.
Each week, Michael would throw down a new phrase at which point our teacher turned, removed her glasses, set down her washable ink marker, “Michael, that is a very bad thing to say. You have to be very careful if you ever say that.” The rest of us would frantically dash notes on the margin of our book. “Michael, foutre. Is that f-o-u-t-r-e?” This was the French not commonly taught at the Alliance Francaise. We absorbed it like ten year olds.
Megan attended this same class, every week showing up directly from her law office job all done out in a suit, stockings, and high heels. Eventually, she stopped French lessons to begin law school. She was cultured, well beyond my expectation of a 28 year old. “I never order duck in French restaurants,” she admitted one evening. “The word for duck is canard. The word for asshole is connard. I’m always afraid I’ll order an asshole.” We laughed – even our teacher laughed. Did Megan just say that?
(An aside: From that day forward, when I order duck in a French restaurant, I switch to English.)
By now, you probably see where my market story is headed.
I turned to the woman and responded in French (I learned at this point that when I am upset and talk without thinking, I do better). “I understood everything you said. I also understand you are an asshole, and this,” I pointed to my English speaking tease, “is a very nice man.” The reality of my limited French is, I only learned the harsher disses (that, and I grew up in New Jersey).
She stared at me, grabbed her packages and slithered away. I wish I could say I regretted it immediately, but I did not. (Little did she realize, on the tip of my tongue was a phrase learned from a German doctor which I pulled back just in time.)
For days, I reconstructed different answers, practiced them – at times looking up the needed words in my French/English dictionary. “Would you like to meet my husband? His uncle landed on the beach at Normandy and fought for the liberation of France. You were alive then; you remember it. Does that mean nothing to you?!”
No. I hate it when Americans pull the “we liberated you guys” card with the French.
My immediate reaction was to lapse into one of my woe is me spells. I want to go home tantrums. Life is easier there delusions. Cue the pity party theme song.
Then, at the next stall, I spoke French to an older man. He giggled as he arranged his peaches, revealing a gap-toothed smile. The more I talked, the wider he grinned, the more unplanned spaces I noticed. “You speak French well,” he commented. I don’t, but my anger lessened. After all, I know a thousand wonderful, toothless vendors for every vapid francophone.
Later that day, a man at the super market placed his hand on my shoulder and led me across the store when he realized I didn’t understand his directions (“Ah, I get it. The spinach is in the freezer!”). I waited until he left and put the spinach back. I wanted fresh.
The next morning, as I worked at the cafe, l looked up from my computer and noticed a man who owns a restaurant on our street chaperoning a group of five year olds on a class trip. As they crossed Richard Lenoir – paired off and holding hands – six women and a lone man spread their arms out like shepherds, concerned for their safely. I smiled, remembering all the class trips Pat chaperoned, all the times he played the role of “class mother” or served on the PTA. I was reminded how similar we are when you wash away the frivolous differences.
Stereotypes are funny things. If you search for them hard enough, you will find them. She lived up to hers just like I lived up to mine.
For her part, I imagine my French nemesis went home and recounted the story to her husband or a girlfriend. Perhaps, she was contrite. Or maybe she roared, “The funniest thing just happened at the market,” she gasped. “Some crazy American woman called me a duck.”
Categories: A year in Paris