When I was 14, I went with my family to Paris. The French! They had a particular way of doing everything, definite opinions about it all. (The funnier version of this sentiment comes from a Steve Martin stand up routine: “It’s like, those French have a different word for everything.”)
Are you in Paris eating a bag of potato chips on the sidewalk because you are very hungry and will otherwise pass out? Wrong decision. Are you fixing your hair in a restaurant in a way that calls attention to yourself? Not acceptable. Are you, by chance, wearing large sandals that are disproportionate to the size of your skinny jeans? Ce n’est pas ok. These social transgressions are met with conspicuous stares of disapproval. They are a public service meant to make life more pleasant for public consumption one antipathetic look at a time.
And, I loved them for it. I grew up in Minnesota. I wanted everything to be more particular. I wanted men to wear pants that fit them. I wanted people to eat, simultaneously, with a fork and a knife. In public places, I wanted to observe two strangers having a heated debate in quiet tones that barred me from hearing what they were actually talking about, even though they were probably just discussing breakfast. I wanted everything to be more just so.
So, like I was saying, in March 1998, my family—dad, mom, little brother, and I—shows up in France. We wheel our suitcases from the metro to the hotel where we were staying on the Île Saint-Louis, in the middle of the Seine. I’m mortified. The suitcases are loud and alerting everyone to the fact that I am not French.
We go to the hotel and, because it is 8 in the morning, but for us actually the middle of the night, we take a nap. We wake up, disoriented. We go to a café for some food. None of us speaks a lick—not a tiny crumb—of French. My dad takes the plunge and tries to order something first. He’ll have an omelet, he says. Also, he’ll have a cappuccino.
The waiter looks at him with dead eyes. A cappuccino? My dad repeats it, again no response. Is he not saying this word French enough? Finally, our man responds: Non, you will not. Cappuccinos don’t go with omelets he informs us. My dad, bless him, listens. I don’t know what he drank but it was not a cappuccino.
A year after college, I went to teach English in France. But basically I went to, at last, exist in a place where I’d be surrounded by sleek people brimming with strong opinions shared in quiet tones. I was put in a tiny town just south of Belgium called Condé-sur-L’Escaut. My job was to have conversations in English with high school students. It was a riot. They didn’t speak much English and didn’t care that much to try, but they were fascinated by me because they’d never met an American before. I took advantage of the situation by mostly speaking to them in French to get better at it (for which I now apologize to my former employer).
In French—when French words came out of my mouth—I was a person with definite opinions, too. It felt right to feign slash actually feel and verbalize astonishment at that which was not really astonishing. (He didn’t say hello to you when you passed him on the street! The audacity.) Having points of view about everything, how things could have been done better—even if I was kind of play acting and laughing at myself at the same time—was a thrill.
So when my French roommate Mathieu told me one night that chick peas didn’t belong in the salad I was making, I wanted to laugh at him. First of all, he was wrong. But I loved him for it. He cared so much that everything—even in increments of salad—was as good as it could be, that it was incumbent on him to let me know this.
Mathieu didn’t speak any English but we spent almost every moment together and he was my patient teacher. One of the first French words he taught me was garbage can: poubelle. Glorious. Even trash was palatable in French. My last night there was the first presidential debate between Ségolène Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy. After all that time with Mathieu, I could basically follow their discussion too. I realized, at last, I was kind of taking part in an real French débat. It was one of my life’s great triumphs.
The next morning at the airport I cried a lot. I was leaving a country whose strong opinions, even when they seemed totally wrong-headed, were just a product of caring genuinely about each of the micro-experiences that collectively make up daily life; a belief that, always (and especially when it comes to meals), things can be better. That they should be done better. I can’t have that cappuccino—maybe an orange juice instead? How wonderful. Thank you, really, for letting me know.