France, Part 9
By night, Paris likes to hang out on the stone banks on the south side of the Seine, on Quai de la Tournelle. Groups of friends come out with large blankets, potluck dinners, wine, music, and dancing. It’s cliquey and you can’t really come into it uninvited if you’re ambulating around without a game plan.
The groups don’t mix or mingle. I see a lot of racial segregation. Sometimes people are on dates. Some girl-only groups. A lot of mixed sex groups. As Raoul leads me over the bridge, I stop and point at a building with stunning gothic architectural features.
“Hey, what’s that important looking building over there?”
“Oh, that’s a toilet factory.”
“No, that’s Notre Dame.”
Walking back up Oberkampf alone, a guy walking in the opposite direction as me, a fairly normal looking fellow, not quite the French lothario, pointed his finger at me and said, “Toi et nul autre!” My linguistic cognition was stymied by it. I knew the words individually, but not together. You.. and… null?… other? Why would someone say this? Me and no one else? It was the first time I had ever felt words delineated from language. They were all grouped together, but they made no sense, and yet I could hear maudlin, saccharine overtones in the words.
The rest of the walk back to David’s flat, I was overcome with the grip that words take on us when we open ourselves up to hear them. I started thinking of what the simplest, sincere thing I could say to someone in passing that would have the greatest impact. Like, even if it isn’t something positive, just neutral, that thing may puzzle them and leave them with a newfound perspective that will start the gears in forever altering their life. We speculate this stuff… simply saying hello to someone could change lives forever, but does it ever actually happen or are all the major comings and goings of our life only truly affected by the big moments and the big words? And, really then, who is to say that a stranger could not say something so cunningly astute to you that it means so much more than anything those close to you ever could say? Maybe that is the beauty of being a stranger–there are so few consequences.
When I get home, I realize that the only things in the fridge are a lone ice cream bar shaped like Mickey Mouse’s head and a wedge of cheese that David told me I could have, describing it as “the good stuff.” I immediately turn back out the door and head down to the street and go to Ménil-Chicken, which is the only thing open. The food here is terrible, but I come here because the owner is very friendly to me and he seems excited to get the opportunity to practice his English and I, as much as I love Raoul’s company, get excited at the opportunity to talk to someone about anything other than Jean Paul Gaultier’s fall line.
But today, there are other people present. A little girl is there. The man is asking me what I want on my sandwich and he asks if I want “moutarde.” I don’t know the word. “C’est sauce jaune…” (“It’s a yellow sauce”) The little girl is kicking a soccer ball inside and paying close attention to our conversation. Everyone knows what mustard is but to hear it described as a “sauce” threw me off. It’d be like someone describing ketchup to me as a “tomato sauce.” I’d just think of spaghetti. He goes to the fridge and pulls out a bottle of mustard and I laugh and say yes. As this is happening, a man walks into the restaurant and places his hand on the girl’s shoulder. She collects the ball in her dirty hands and turns back to the man, likely her father, and starts excitedly telling him how weird it is that there is this grown woman in the restaurant who doesn’t know simple words like mustard. He tells her it is rude to talk about other people like that. But I turn back to her to say, lacking any sophistication, “J’apprends francais, mais… ce… n’est… pas…. facile.” (“I am learning French, but it is not easy.”)
As I say goodbye to the owner, it dawns on me. I have evolved quite a bit in the past half year. I have a lot of hobbies, stories, and crazy things I did not have last fall. And what’s more, I don’t have any reservations in sharing those things with others. I gesticulate more, using the full range of my body for the sake being more emphatic. And even when it’s not easy, mangling the words… there is a whole language between me and others that speaks solely in peaks of chaos.