Thinking Until It Hurts


My produce store. Simultaneously beautiful. And Terrifying.

My father died of Alzheimer’s, a fact which haunts me every time I forget something.

And let’s face it. I’m nearly 60. I can’t remember how often I forget. So, I do Sudoku. The New York Times crossword puzzle. And then I read a research paper which asserted to stave off forgetfulness, you need to exercise your brain until it hurts. If you enjoy that Sudoku puzzle, they claimed, you aren’t doing enough. The specific example they cited of effective brain ache was to learn a second language.

How fortuitous that I am surrounded by people who insist on speaking French. How wonderful that this terrifies me.

I’m more of a French 101 kind of person:

  • Hello.
  • What’s your name?
  • What do you do?
  • How old are you? (I answer this. Because I know how.)

The unscripted French is where I falter. But each day–and with this research in mind–I push myself into the French Terror Zone. As I write this, I am building up the courage to buy a pear. My fruit vendor is the Perry Mason of fruit vendors.

  • A pear, eh? Do you want to eat it today or tomorrow?
  • What level of sweetness do you prefer?
  • Spanish or Italian?
  • Yellow or green or brown?
  • Big or little?

Please, I whimper, just give me any pear.

This week, I had to mail our OFII forms to the French immigration office in Paris, and I had to send them with a confirmation of receipt. As I pulled open the post office door, I rehearsed the line I had typed into my phone: une lettre recommendee avec avis de reception.

The post office was smaller than I expected–and a good bit more confusing. Two attendants stood behind podiums in the middle of the floor. Each had a sign over their head which detailed their individual and unique services. Against the walls were a variety of ATM-like machines. European post offices provide an array of services: You can open a savings account and transact banking, buy a track phone or up the minutes on an existing one, or pay bills. Each machine provides only one service, much like my butcher only sells meat and my bread maker only sells bread.

I had read that I should mail this extremely important form by using a real person–NOT A MACHINE–and hence I joined the queue under the sign that specified envoyer.

 One by one, the ten people in front of me were served. I didn’t mind the wait as it allowed me to mentally practice my lines with all the urgency of an understudy awaiting the day when the star pulls up lame.


Act one: Mail the envelope with receipt (appear confident)

Let me declare right here: I excel at the opening salvo.

When it was my turn, I explained what I wanted. The attendant never looked up, dismissively waved me back towards the machines, and with no hesitation turned to the man behind me.

I spent the next fifteen minutes touching machines. One by one they sprang to life, but none of them offered basic postal services. Internally, I smouldered. By the time I noticed the attendant had moved near me to help another customer (one who undoubtedly could ask for help effortlessly), I was mentally packing up my apartment. She pointed me to the machine I needed.

Alas, I slogged through buying an avis de reception. The machine spat out a stamp and a form. Once I completed the form, I lined up under the envoyer sign again and began to rehearse.


Act One Scene Two: Mail the envelope with receipt redux (suppressing tears)  

I was deep in concentration, my lips moving as I constructed what I would say. I wasn’t ready when the woman behind the second podium noticed my completed form and pulled me out of line.

“Aidez-moi,” I croaked.

Help me??

A two-year-old prodigy might say this as they attempted to pull off their boots. Or a plane crash victim might ingeniously carve this message on a snowy mountainside using nothing more than evergreen branches and grit.

But me? A grown woman standing amidst nothing more threatening than pensioners with packages (because, after all, who else goes to the post office on a weekday at 10 AM?), I sounded pathetic.

She grabbed my envelope and thumped multiple stamps both front and back. Then she ripped off a piece and affixed it to the envelop. Tore off something else and handed it to me. She never broke stride.

When she was finished, she dropped the envelope into a box and chirped, “Bon après-midi.”

“Merci,” I replied. (Although by this point, it lacked all chirpiness and sounded more like mercy.)

As I walked out of the post office, I wondered if life in Paris could work. If I would ever learn to speak French effortlessly.

Yet as I walked home, I realized that my brain hurt like hell.



Categories: Life in Paris

Tags: , , , ,

14 replies

  1. Hi, I sympathize with you at the post office, I have been a parisian for a long time now I live in country near Paris
    where every thing is easier. Recently, in Paris I wanted to buy stamps in a post cffice, I have been obliged to ask help
    because I am stupid facing machines…

    I am very fond of your blog, I like your style and your mind curious about everything.

    I would like very much to meet you when the weather will be nicer . Sorry for my poor english

    Welcome to Paris and “bon courage” .


  2. Usually, when I read your posts, I comment about which specific turns of phrase impress me. I love the way you craft your pieces, and I like to point out to you which bits I love. But in this piece, there are so many places that you carefully chose words and used figurative language, that I can’t possibly list them all. Well done.

  3. Oh.. I totally feel your pain. I needed to send some papers to my bank in London as DHL was going to charge me an arm, leg and frigging right breast 😏. I stood in line forever and when it was finally my turn had to explain myself in just awful Spanish but l finally got it done. I felt like a 2 year old as well and could have cried. This post office is tiny and the only one in the pueblo. So tiny that it seems they only come to collect registered mail once a week..but it got there. I’m still holding on to that slip in case l need to do it head definitely hurt! Good for you!!!!

  4. I feel your pain. Taking a German class 50 years after learning in high school. Masculine, feminine , neuter, nominatives accusatives etc. It once made sense. Now my head hurts. I just want to be able to ask for a cup of coffee and a glass of wine!

  5. Well done! Officialdom and procedure – difficult to master in any new country, even when you know the language well. You should give yourself five stars!

  6. This piece could make a great act for a comedy scene, think Saturday Night Live!!
    I recognize the brain hurt, I have just been cramming Spanish for about 6 weeks for a quick visit to Mexico. I am now about to torture my brain anew, getting back to French for our visit to France in May. Meanwhile, Diane is doing the same for Italian for the second half of our trip, and trying not to confuse each other with words that sound almost the same. At this rate my brain will keep on functioning ’til way after my body gives up!

  7. Thank you for your post. I am a little late getting to it, but it was an important read for me.
    Without Mirka’s Polish speaking skills we would be lost here. Alone, I would have been gone many many months ago.
    I can only handle the most basic transactions at a supermarket, a few other places, but for the most part that is it. A purchase at a meat or deli counter requires pointing and other gestures.
    I love living here but there is always an element of terror when I am out of the house on my own, so I could easily identify with your little story.
    Google translate is a pretty good app for use on a smartphone or a tablet, but for the most part I just use it to translate words I see every day or the names of things in stores. The smartphone and tablet versions also have offline dictionaries. The windows browser add-on is very useful for translating web pages.

    • It’s funny, Dan. It is hard, but I’ve grown fond of places where I don’t understand the language. I can read on the train without being disrupted! But sometimes, it is just nice to not have to work so hard every day. I’m glad you have Mirka too!

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