Friday, September 05, 2008

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly...

Well, I made it to france without any problems, except that I don't know the language here. But that will come with a lot of hard work, time and prayer. Just the other day I decided to go out and try to speak the few things that Valerie had begun to teach me. Sentences like, "Hello, my name is Mike. What's your name? I am American, but I live here in France. I live in the white castle. I learn French from my fiancée Valerie." Armed with my books and freshly learned phrases, I headed outside into the cold just to find myself wandering the streets and being stared at, mostly. I was looking for a place of encounters. A place where people might be relaxing and talking, letting down their guard just enough to let a practically mute American try to practice his french with them. As it turns out, people don't really go out when it's cold outside, which is pretty much year round here in Thumeries. This leads to a few logical conclusions. First, as valerie has pointed out, people around here have a lot of children. I guess if you can't do anything outside because of the rain and cold, then there is only so much you can do inside before you get bored and fall back on one of the few things that humans have always been good at--making babies. Second, when you try to stop and talk with people on the street when it's cold out, they usually aren't too interested in you. And who can blame them with what they're going home to. Third, if you want to talk to people in a cold place, it's best to go somewhere that is not just public, but public and warm.

So, I decided to try my luck in an authentic French Café. I know what you are envisioning...waiters wearing funny hats, every man with a thin little handlebar mustache, beautiful women, couples reading poetry together, someone peeing on the wall outside...but forgot all of that, because that's not at all what it was like. Maybe in Paris, but not here in the village. This is a working man's area, for real men. Entering the café, I sidled up at the bar next to a sharp looking blond guy, clearly on his break from some kind of construction job. Everyone was staring at the foreigner (me), waiting for his next move. It was like a spaghetti western. I was the stranger who had walked into a room full of suspicious and distrustful eyes, and as the camera zoomed in tight on my squinting eyes and those of the bartender, I said "One coffee" in the perfect french that only my fiancée could teach. The tension immediately broke as the bartender said, "Ha! Listen to his accent he's English!" It was obvious that they were talking about me for awhile, and I imagine more obvious that I was a little uncomfortable about it, since I choked and forgot how to say everything else except 'hello', 'thank you', and 'one coffee', so the blond guy smiled and stuck out his hand to shake mine.

I felt so uncomfortable that I decided to retreat back to the castle. Chugging my shot of espresso and stuffing the little complimentary chocolate that came with it, I exited the café, vowing to come back and conquer it another day. It is amazing how much of our well being, or at least our sense of well being, rests in the ability to communicate. Sure, I feel a little uncomfortable in any public place, even in my hometown, but what really made me uncomfortable was not being able to speak. Now I know why babies cry so much--they can't say anything. I'm sure I'll cry a few times these next years while I'm learning to speak too.