Sunday, April 4, 2010

French Kiss (BritFrance Part Deux)

After our smashing week in jolly old England, my roommate Julie and I reluctantly set off from the white cliffs of Dover in a hovercraft headed for Calais. In Calais, we were immediately ushered onto a train bound for Paris that dropped us off into the bustling chaos of Gare du Nord train station.

Julie and I both minored in French in college. She had visited France previously as part of a college summer program. This was my first trip and my first chance to ever actually use those eight years of French lessons in real life.

I was instantly overwhelmed. I understood nothing. My last French class had been three years prior. Thankfully, the major directional signs were also printed in English, but all the ads were in French and left me scratching my head. Plus, there are so many foreign people running about in major cities that you can’t tell whose language skills are worse. Is my French that bad, or are they speaking another language altogether?

That was my initial reaction, but after a couple of days in the city, when I figured out the Metro and was able to relax a little, I found that I could actually make out the meaning of just about every ad. Maybe not every word, but I could get the gist of it. Eavesdropping on the conversation of two French people at a nearby table at the café – that was still way beyond my comprehension.

Julie and I tried very hard not to look or be "too American." We would start out speaking French to the waiters and were irritated when they spoke back to us in English. We thought they were being condescending, but they were probably just being considerate. If we kept speaking French, they’d speak French, too.

Naturally, we had a list of sights we wanted to see and things we wanted to do, knowing full well we weren’t going to have time for it all. We managed to carve “NCG” on the Eiffel Tower (for Newcastle Girls), stroll the Champs-Elysées, and visit Notre Dame, the Rodin museum, and the Louvre. (Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo… at a certain point, you just think, “Great, another masterpiece, yay.")

We experienced a little “trail magic” when we were walking along the Seine and noticed that a crowd and a few police had started gathering. We could tell something was going on but had no idea what. Suddenly fireworks started exploding, and eventually we learned that this was the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Paris by the Allied forces during WWII. Bonus!

Some of the other things we hoped to do were dance in a French disco (we brought our own whistles), visit Monet’s gardens at Giverny, and see Jim Morrison’s grave at Père Lachaise cemetery. In the afternoon of our fourth out of five days in Paris, we figured we’d have to cross off Jim Morrison because the cemetery was located a little farther out than most of the other tourist sites, in a different arrondissement that was not part of our Metro pass. We thought we could make it to Giverny the next day by joining up with a day-trip tour. So that left the disco.

The discos don’t open until late, so we had time for dinner. Before embarking on this vacation, Julie and I had both heard from separate sources about a strange little restaurant in Paris that shouldn’t be missed. It was a fondu joint where they served wine in baby bottles. A friend had written down the name and address but cautioned that we needed to make a reservation.

Speaking on the phone in French was still a daunting task, and I guess I lost the coin toss. I wasn’t sure the word “reservation” was the same in French, but I must have gotten the point across because when we got to the restaurant, we got seated right away.

An extra quirk about this place is that they would make you sit next to people you don’t know. The skinny dining room consisted of two really long tables that ran alongside the walls. If your seat was on the wall side, they’d make you climb over the table to get to your chair. Especially if you were a girl in a short skirt.

We were kind of relieved to be seated next to a group of friendly Americans to my left. We chatted with them and they seemed fun. We thought we might meet up with them later on. They had been seated earlier than us, so they left when Julie and I were in the middle of our dinner.

As soon as they left, the two guys that had been seated on the other side of us (to my right) began talking to us. In French. In very quick French.

Julie and I responded, “Un petit plus lentement, s’il vous plait.” (A little more slowly, please.)

The French guys were a little taken aback when we spoke French to them. They had heard us speaking English, and I think whatever they said to us in French was something they didn’t expect or want us to understand.

There were actually four of them, all guys around our age. I don’t remember what we said to them, but I think I managed to convey, in French, that we were visiting from the US and hoped to find a disco after dinner. The guy next to me told me the discos don’t open until late (which we knew) and the Metros closed at midnight (which we didn’t know), so I was wondering how we were going to work that out.

The restaurant was becoming very busy, and Julie and I were done with our meal. The waiters were trying to get rid of us so that they could seat another party. We staved them off for a while by ordering dessert (Granitas – sorbet served in a frozen lemon – yum!). We wanted to continue talking to the French guys, but eventually we had to go. I made a trip to the restroom, and on the way back, I stopped to say au revoir and tell the guy seated next to me that I enjoyed talking to him.

He asked me to wait, because he and his friends were not done with their meal, but the waiters were already seating other people in our chairs. So he came outside with me and Julie and asked us to wait for him and his friends until they paid their bill. He said they wanted to take us to a bar and buy us a beer. He said if we went with them, they could drive us back to our hotel and we wouldn't have to worry about the Metro.

Julie and I sat outside for a bit pondering our options. We didn't even really know where a disco was, so when the guys came out, we agreed to go with them to the bar. The guy who had been sitting next to me (I'll call him Philippe) said he and his friend with the car would drive Julie and me, while the other two guys would walk and meet us at the bar because it was not far. Philippe said that the neighborhood we were in was called Pigalle and was famous for its “sex shoppes.” Interesting that it was so near Sacre Coeur.

Even though Julie and I would have preferred wine, the guys insisted on buying us beer. I think they had it in their heads that Americans liked beer. The funny thing is, the beer was about $6, while the wine was about $2. And French beer sucks. I have this theory that countries that are known for good food also have good wine, but their beer sucks (France, Italy). Countries that are known for good beer have bad food and bad wine (England, Germany – yeah, I personally think German wine and food sucks). Then there’s Mexico/South America with ok food, ok wine, and ok beer.

Anyway, we sat at a table, the guys brought us beer, and we started talking like normal people, only in French. One of the guys spoke pretty good English, another one knew a little English, and the other two (including Philippe) didn’t really know hardly any English at all. So I specifically remember sitting there in the middle of the conversation thinking, “Holy crap! I’m actually having a normal social conversation – in French! Madame Layno would be so proud!”

Then Philippe asked me if I knew what a French kiss was.

“Uh…ouiiii,” I said, a little suspiciously.

He told me there are really two kinds. One is the little kisses on the cheek, like when you greet your friend.

“Oui,” I said.

Then he said the other kind was “avec la langue.” (With the tongue.)

“Oui…” I said, wondering where he was going with this.

Then he asked if I would like to experience a French kiss. Avec la langue.

“Here?” I said (in French).

He suggested that we could go outside.

Now, if you can imagine time stopping for a moment, like it might in a movie, while the main character pauses to talk to the camera – that’s kind of what it felt like as I paused to talk to myself.

Let me just think for a moment. I’m 25 years old. I’m on vacation. In Paris – the City of Love. I have no boyfriend. And a cute French boy is asking me if I want to experience a French kiss.

“OK!” I said.

Philippe guided me out of the bar and around the building into a little side street. I stood on a curb because I am short and he was taller than me. And he kissed me. Avec la langue.

A group of people passed by and teased us. We waited for them to pass, and I looked up and noticed the glowing full moon. I swear, there was a full moon.

Philippe asked, “Tu n’as pas de petit-ami aux Étas-Unis?” (You don’t have a boyfriend in the US?)

I shook my head.

“Pourquoi?” he asked. “Whyeeeee?”

I grinned and blushed and said I didn't know.

“Tu es très jolie,” he said. (You’re very pretty.)

I smiled some more.

“Tu es belle,” he said. (You’re beautiful.)

I just could not believe this. I was already grokking this moment (the full moon, Paris) and couldn't stop grinning, and then he added, in heavily accented English, “Aiee loooove yew.”

Seriously. I’m not making this up. I think I actually laughed - not a mean laugh, but you know, a kind of delighted laugh. I didn't know if he was feeding me lines, if this was the way French guys normally wooed women, or if I was dreaming, but I thought I'd just go with it because I didn't want to wake up.

Well, I didn’t want Julie to worry too much, so we rejoined our friends in the bar. I told Philippe that we intended to visit Giverny the following day, and then after that, we were headed to Nice. He asked me to send him a postcard. I said ok, but I needed his address. In fact, it dawned on me that I didn’t know his last name.

“Charamond” he said, which sounded like “charmant,” which in French means “charming.”

“Philippe Charming?!” I exclaimed. But he corrected me. “Char-a-mond.”

Then he found a copy of Le Monde, tore off a corner, and began to write down his address:

Philippe Charamond
3 rue des Charmes

“Rue des Charmes?!” I squawked. “Your name is Philippe Charming and you live on Charm Street?!”

Well, it got late, and the guys said they would drive us back to our hotel because the Metro was closed. Julie and I were crammed into the back seat with two of the guys, getting jostled around as this little French car zipped through the streets. We overheard one of the guys up front say something about “Père LaChaise.”

“Père LaChaise?!” We perked up.

They told us that’s where Jim Morrison’s grave was.

“We know!” We told them we had been wanting to see it. We tried to sit up and at least get a glimpse of it through the window. Next thing I know, the car was being parked. We all tumbled out, and there before us was a big iron gate, just like you’d imagine would lead to a big famous cemetery.

Unfortunately, the gate was locked. The guys started piling up some crates they found nearby and were able to hoist themselves over the top of the wall. I was actually wearing a dress and thought, “No way!”

I looked at the rungs of the iron gate, cocked my head to the side a little bit, and then stepped right between two of them. Julie and I were just skinny enough to step through!

So, all of us managed to get to the other side, only to discover that there was a second, taller, stone wall inside. We set about walking around it to find an entrance. We didn’t get very far before we heard barking. Loud, deep barking, like a Doberman.

Everyone scattered and ran in different directions. I tried to run down a hill in my dress and ended up falling on the grass. I couldn’t see anything in the dark, but then I heard Philippe yelling, “Il est attaché! Il est attaché!”

The dog was tied up.

Even so, what with the bark and the dark, and the fact that I really had to pee, we pretty much gave up and I never did see Jim Morrison's grave. We went back to the car, and the boys dropped us off at the Holiday Inn. Philippe walked me to the door and kissed me goodnight.

And Julie and I never got to use our whistles at a French disco, and we didn’t even make it to Giverny the next day because we were too tired to make the day-trip departure on time.

We did make it to Nice, though, and I did send a postcard to Philippe. He sent me one back to the United States, proving not only that this story was not a figment of my imagination but also that he really did live at 3 rue des Charmes.

It’s debatable whether my eight years of French instruction has ever had a practical application, but without it I never would have experienced a French kiss with Philippe Charming from Charm Street.

Merci beaucoup, Madame Layno!

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