4 April 2018
I was yanked back to a vivid, if humbling, memory of an incident years ago by a book I’m reading now, written by an American couple…a couple who decamps yearly to provincial France (Provence, actually) for a summer month of civility, fraternity, gastronomy and the attempt to stanch a year’s worth of language seepage from the previous year’s month spent in France, when they almost got back the seepage from the year before that. It’s a constant battle , because stateside there are precious few ways to maintain, much less improve the march toward fluency…a French movie, reading the menu at a French restaurant, a lecture that mostly flies over your head, a French class once a week.
In my case, I sallied forth to France with a thin veneer of high school French and the confidence that merely trying to get along in the native language would endear me to the locals. And for the most part it worked, as long as I stuck to renting a room, asking directions, ordering food, etc. More than that I was drowning in an incomprehensible wave of French idioms.
It was in the early 60s that I took an initial trip to France…a week in Paris, a week roaming the countryside and then another few days back in Paris. In Paris I found a small hotel, left-bank narrow, with an art deco elevator cage. The owner was a very courtly, kindly white-haired gentleman of an age, no doubt, who had seen years of nasty European history pass under his gaze. After a week I left for Normandy, the Loire Valley, Champagne. But my crowning achievement was arranging, in French, to return in a week and have a room in his superbe hotel for another few days. Done and done.
And so I was off to the glories of Rouen, the rock arches of Etretat in the English Channel, the vineyards of the Loire Valley and, finally, the day before my triumphal return to Paris, Troyes, southeast of Paris.
I can only hope that in the intervening decades, Troyes has been blessed with a renaissance that has touched up some aspects of its drab, rusted, industrial charms. I found a hotel late in the afternoon, and, needing a little shuteye, fell backwards onto the expected softness of the bed, which almost vaulted me back up like a trampoline. I eased myself onto it and realized that outside the traffic was as loud as 42nd Street at show time. Worse, there was a strong gas smell. A struck match to ignite a Gauloises somewhere in the hotel and poof. So I made a return trip with my valise down to the front desk and told them of the impeding disaster. My well-meant caveat they acknowledged with sullen grace. It iz not zat bad, they told me.
I decided to drive into Paris. I would be there a night early, but maybe my hotel would have a room. Along the road, I found a phone booth, crammed more than enough francs into it and, mon deux, the owner picked up. Now I had to explain myself. Words flew away. Nothing in the phrase book was appropriate. I stammered, I shed tears, I perspired. It was a minute or two…by far the longest of my life. I was a prisoner of my ignorance of French, Finally, the white-haired Galahad on the other end of the line asked…monsieur, do you speak English?