“I DON’T SPEAK FRENCH!”: AN ASSHOLE AMERICAN TAKES FRANCE BY STORM

 

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Me in France (not while driving)

In January, even though the only French words I knew were “viola” and “bordeaux,” I decided to visit a dear friend of mine who owns a gorgeous home in a remote medieval village in the South of France.  I didn’t know exactly what the logistics getting to this “remote medieval village” would entail, but my policy has always been, “Do it first, ask questions later.”  Usually the questions I ask later are (in no particular order): Where am I? Whose pants am I wearing? Was that two bottles of wine or two bottles of whiskey that I drank?  Why is there a photo of me jumping on a trampoline with a raccoon on my head?  Do I have the herp?  Am I dead?  Is this heaven?

Really, I had no reason to worry.  I’d been to Paris before, after all, and had experienced almost no mishaps, except losing my credit cards and money and getting stranded for days and having to call my ex-husband and beg him to spend thousands of dollars to buy me an emergency ticket flying me through Switzerland (where I would spend the night) to finally get home.  But other than that, my prior trip to France had been totally cool.  So I was pretty sure this one would go off without a hitch as well.

I booked a flight to Paris.  A few days before I was scheduled to leave, I thought I should at least check out a map to see exactly where my friend’s village was located.  It turns out that they call it “The South of France” because it’s in the southern part of France, which was good to know.  A little nugget to tuck into my back pocket just in case I needed it to show off at a cocktail party or cream someone in Trivial Pursuit.  I reread my friend’s last few emails to pick up important details I might have missed in my initial readings.  “THE VILLAGE IS FAR, FAR AWAY FROM PARIS. TAKE A TRAIN.  IT LEAVES RIGHT FROM THE AIRPORT.  IT’S CHEAP AND EASY.”

After going carefully over her emails, I decided to rent a car and drive the eight hours from Paris to my friend’s village.  Why?  Well, I was raised on a mostly uninhabited mountain in New Mexico.  If we had to go to the big city (Albuquerque), we drove rusty trucks with their bumpers attached using barbed wire.  Otherwise, we rode horses and/or Huffy bikes. The most fearful thing that could happen to us while traveling was getting our bicycle wheels stuck in the cattle guards.

Though I’ve traveled quite a bit of the world, and ridden my fair share of trains since then, I’ve never become completely comfortable with the concept of public transportation.  Buying tickets even when in America is always daunting for me.  Do I put my card in the machine first or press buttons, and what kind of ticket do I want, and why won’t the machine take my card, and why is the guy behind me swearing at me, and sir does your mother know you use words like that, and which piece of paper is my ticket, and oh god I have to put it in this little slot so the gate will open, and wrong slot wrong slot wrong slot, and bloody hell I should have just jumped the fucking gate.  And then trying to find the correct train?  Forget about it.

But thanks to my decades of being a groupie and following rock bands all over kingdom come, I’m perfectly fine driving billions of miles alone and sleeping in my car.  And what better way to see France than on a road trip, right?  Plus, look, I followed a band for weeks all over the U.K. once, ok?  Driving a car with the stick shift on the wrong side, at night, in a blizzard, on the wrong side of the road, in London.  No, I’m not making this up.  Yeah, sure I almost died a few hundred times, but what’s life without a little adventure?  So if I could pull that off, France would be a piece of cake.

So fast forward.  I’ve landed in France, and I’ve rented a car, and now, I’m circling the airport.  I have been circling the airport for about an hour.  I can’t find my way out of the airport.  The airport is roughly the size of Jupiter, and is composed mostly of cleverly linked roundabouts.  We don’t have roundabouts where I’m from, so they are a foreign concept to me.  And all of the signs are in French.  My GPS is pronouncing the streets to me in French, so she will say something like, “Take the 19th exit on the roundabout at Je.”  And I will pass a sign that says “Jeauxdeauxentepartmoi” and realize that most of the syllables in the word were silent, and that’s why my GPS said “Je.”  By then, my GPS will be rerouting me for the billionth time because I passed Je six f-bombs ago.  (When driving in foreign countries, I measure time by f-bombs dropped—usually one every five seconds or so.)

Finally, by some miracle of fate, I escape the airport, wipe away my tears, and turn up my music.  I’m on the freeway, baby.  It’s open road all the way from here to there, as far as I can tell by looking at my GPS.  She was an American girl raised on promises!  I’m rockin’ out, man, just like I do in the good ol’ US of A.  I glory in the fact that I’m driving in France.  I can’t speak in French, but man, can I drive in French.  And I’m driving a tiny Frenchy car, just like all these other French people, blending in completely.  I bet they think I’m a native Frenchwoman.  That’s how much I blend in.

And then, up ahead, I see a row of big, red, flashing signs.  Cars are all backed up, and even though I can’t read the words on the signs, I’ve been through enough tolls in the U.S. to know what’s happening.  No problem.  I got this.  Just roll down the window.  Wait.  Where the hell is the window roller downer?  Not on the door, though that little knob there seems to have turned on some siren sounding thing.  Not in the center console, though I’ve managed to turn on the emergency lights.  Not by the radio, though I think I’ve pushed the button that summons the demon hoards.  Oh, it’s down there, by the glove box.  Of course it is.

So I roll down the window and insert my credit card into the slot, and it keeps spitting it back out.  Again and again, the toll thingie spits my card out, and I don’t know what to do.  The people behind me are honking and saying bad things to me in French.  Finally, I press the little red button, and a woman’s voice comes over the speaker.  Speaking in French, of course.  And I have to be the asshole American who says, “I DON’T SPEAK FRENCH!” very loudly over and over, hoping the repetition of the sentence will make the woman, who clearly doesn’t understand English, absorb by osmosis the meaning of my words.  She must, because finally, I hear her shouting something in French, which even though I don’t speak French, I know means, “Some asshole American is yelling at me in English.  Does anyone speak fucking English?”  Then a man comes on the speaker.  “Yes.  Can I help?”

“YES, YES.  I’M SORRY! I DON’T SPEAK FRENCH”

“I have been told.”

“OK!  WELL THE MACHINE WON’T TAKE MY CARD!”

“Yes. The American cards do not work in France. You need French card.”

“UM! OK! I’M NOT SURE WHAT TO DO!”

“Would you please lowering your voice?”

“SURE! Um, sure.” (in a whisper)  “I’m not sure what to do.”

“Quoi?”

“I DON’T SPEAK FRENCH!”

“There is no need to, what you say, shout?  Please repeat what you say before?”

(Very conscious of my volume.  Too loud?  Too quiet?  Don’t reprimand me again, please, angry Frenchman. I beg of you, be merciful. I’ll cry.)  “I’m not sure what to do?”

“You have cash?”

“No.  I didn’t think to get any at the airport.”

More shouting in French about asshole Americans, and then: “Pull over to the right, please, and be going into the building, and will walk to the highest floor.”

So I go into the building and climb up like 14 flights of stairs to find a man standing behind a window.  “Credit card,” he says, his voice dripping with distain.

I push it through the slot.  He writes my information down.  I spend the whole time he’s writing trying to remember the French word for “thank you” from my last trip to France.  “Merci,” I mutter as he gives me back my card.  It sounds like “mercy.”  He rolls his eyes.

Ok, now repeat this experience about 600 times, because in France, there is a toll booth every two miles or so.  And even after I stop at a bank machine to get cash, it doesn’t matter because most of the tolls only take cards.  So I keep having to summon angry Frenchmen with my bad English to shove wads of cash at them.  They don’t give me change even when I give them 20 euro bills.  I’m fairly certain I’m being overcharged.

After several hundred kilometers of humiliation and extortion, it’s time to stop for gas.  Guess what.  French gas tanks don’t take American cards either.  And many of the stations aren’t manned.  I stop at five gas stations.  I’m frantic that I am going to run out of gas.  Does AAA work in France?  I finally find one where I can pay for gas by negotiating in loud English with a clearly disgusted French girl with blue nail polish and green hair.

And then, I have to figure out what kind of gas to put in my tank.  There are three kinds of gas, and they are all labeled in French.  I’m pretty sure if I put the wrong one in, the car will blow up.  I use some of my precious international iPhone data to Google how to figure out what kind of gas to put in your car in France.  I find out lots and lots of asshole Americans have been flummoxed by this very question.  It makes me feel better.  Asshole Americans unite.  I put gas in the fucking car.

I have to pee now, so I pull the car into a parking space and go inside.  I walk into a bathroom I’m sure had a little stick lady on the sign outside, but there are men lined up at urinals peeing.  I flee, embarrassed by this gratuitous display of man meat, only to bash into a woman entering the bathroom.  Ah, a unisex bathroom.  I forgot about this.  I play it cool and walk back past the peeing men.  I get stage fright when I try to pee because I know men are going to hear me, and what if I fart?  It takes me like 12 minutes to get a steady stream going, even though a half hour ago, I was about to wet my pants.

When I return to my car, I turn it on and try to put it in reverse.  The gear shift won’t budge.  I try again.  And again.  And again.  Nothing. The car won’t work in reverse.  I’m in tears.  I don’t know what to do.  I will never get out of this parking space, and no one can help me because I can’t ask for help because I don’t speak fucking French.

Ok, you’ve got this, Tawni.  Breathe.  You can solve problems like nobody’s business.  Solve this one.  I know!  I can go forward.  I will drive forward over the giant yellow cement thingie in front of the space and take it from there.

So I try that.  But I can’t get enough traction to get over the thingie, and my car is making this weird high pitched screaming noise, and the world smells like burning rubber, and this French guy is desperately knocking on my window.  I roll it down, and he says something emphatically in French.  “I DON’T SPEAK FRENCH!” I say.  “MY CAR IS BROKEN!”

He laughs at me.  “Not broken,” he says.  He reaches through the window and pulls up on this little rubber thingie that is under the ball on the gear shift.  “Up, see?”  He puts it in reverse.  “Not broken.”  In France, you have to lift a stupid thingie to go backward.  I totally knew that.

“Merci,” I yell as I drive away.

And that whole process, the tolls, and the gas, and the peeing men, keeps happening over and over like a recurring nightmare for eight hours, so that by the time I arrive in my friend’s village, I’m a wreck.  (Did I mention I did all this with jet lag?  I rode in first class too, so I stayed up watching movies and drinking free champagne all night, which it turns out exacerbates jet lag to an astonishing degree.)

And then, I have an amazing magical time in my friend’s village, which you can read about in other posts on this blog.

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The most beautiful village in the world

The only time my inner asshole American comes out to play during the week is when my friend, who happens to be a novelist and ambassador’s wife, asks me to put a kettle on and leaves the room.  I fill the kettle, light the stove, put the kettle on a burner, then turn to do the dishes.  The next thing I know, there is an inferno on the stove behind me.  The kettle is in flames.  Having set quite a few fires while my children were growing up, I remember what they used to do when I started a washcloth or a newspaper or my head on fire.  Throw water on it.  So I do that, and the fire fizzles and dies.  I pick up the kettle.  It has melted, and black, gooey rubber flies all over the kitchen, dousing my friend’s incredible, no doubt expensive, countertops in thick, ugly black.  Which is when she reenters.  “What happened?” she yells, horrified.

“I’m so sorry!  I just put the kettle on the stove, and it started on fire!” I say.

“It’s an electric kettle!  You don’t put electric kettles on the stove!  Haven’t you ever seen an electric kettle before?”

“No!” I say, as horrified as she is.  “No, I haven’t!  I have never seen an electric kettle!”  I am suddenly angry at my parents.  I feel as if they failed me in a huge way by not introducing me early to the concept of electric kettles.

At that point, her six-year-old daughter enters the room.  She is a brilliant and sensitive child who cherishes her parents deeply and responds emphatically to any slight against them.  She bursts into tears.  “That’s daddy’s favorite kettle!” she wails.  “Daddy will be so sad.  You’ve melted his favorite kettle.  Mummy, she’s melted Daddy’s kettle!”

And I’m starting to panic.  All of the upset and melted rubber and smoke is compounded by a thousand now that I’ve found out that this is not just any old electric kettle I have melted.  I have melted none other than the ambassador’s favorite kettle. I want to burst into tears too and wail, “I’ve melted the ambassador’s favorite kettle!  This has got to be a hanging offense in France!  I’m going to be hanged in the square for melting the ambassador’s favorite kettle!”  But I don’t because someone has to keep her wits about her, and it’s certainly not going to be me, but I can at least pretend to do so.

Anyway, eventually I peeled all the rubber off the countertops, and my gracious friends forgave me, and our week of general delight continued uninterrupted, though nobody let me anywhere near a kettle or a match again.

And then, I was driving back to Paris, pissing off toll booth people and watching men urinate and trying to negotiate gas deals in loud, insistent, asshole American English.  I had one night left in France, this time in Paris (so I would be close to the airport from hell for my flight in the morning).  As I mentioned, I had driven in London on the wrong side of the road, and was quite certain Paris would be easier.  It wasn’t.

First of all, all the signs were in French.  I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned it, but I don’t speak French.  The whole city is a series of roundabouts with about twelve lanes in them.  I say “lanes” as if there are designated lanes.  If there are, I don’t know where they are.  There are no lines on the road. Cars just dart around, stopping and going in a willy nilly fashion, and every few seconds, a bus materializes from out of nowhere and tries to kill you.  It’s like playing Frogger, only if you get hit, you actually die, and there are no more yous lined up at the bottom of the screen to try hopping across the road again.  As you are pressing the gas pedal madly, trying to outrun the busses, cyclists leap out in front of your car, intent on committing hari kari, and you aren’t sure if you should slam on the breaks and let them live, thereby letting the bus behind you squish you flat, or just keep going and mow the fuckers down.  You cry and you scream obscenities, and after a while, you realize the secret to all of this is just stopping and going and turning whenever you feel like it.  And then you will blend.  Like a native Frenchwoman.

It took me about three hours to make it to my hotel, and when I finally did, I pulled up to park on the street and found that the parking meter didn’t take cash.  Of course it wouldn’t take my fucking credit card.  Also, there were ominous looking men lined up outside the hotel. I’m almost sure they had switchblades shoved in their boots.  The hotel itself looked like it was part of the set of Trainspotting, which shouldn’t have surprised me since I booked the thing online for $30.  But you know, in my defense, Travelocity gave it three stars.

I said, “Fuck this!” jumped back in my car, played the part of the frog in a Frogger game for another hour, finally made it to the outskirts of the city, where I slept in my car, just like I used to when I followed rock bands.

Confession: This bit about driving in France was supposed to be a one paragraph introduction to a humor article about my second drive through France, but it spiraled out of control. (Yes, a few months later, I rented a car to drive through France again because I clearly am a slow learner.  And yes, the second time sucked just as much as the first.  However, I had been practicing French, so I was now able to shout “JE NE PARLE PAS FRANÇAIS!”)  And then I was going to tell you how I fell down a very long flight of ancient stone steps while “mildly tipsy” and almost died climbing into a canyon in a tight red dress and high heeled boots, and was all going to be very funny, but I can see that your attention is flagging, and also, I have some chocolate and wine that needs tending to. Just know that in spite of all of the trauma, during this, my second (and much longer) visit to aforementioned medieval French village, I’m thinking of moving to France.  And yesterday, I had tea with a lovely woman who invited me to dinner with some former members of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre Company.  As a former actor, this thrills me. I will do my best not to set any of them (or their kettles) on fire.

P.S.  Here are Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers, the band I followed all over the U.K., singing “American Girl,” along with The Gin Blossoms.  If I do anything cool enough to have a movie made about my life, please make this the theme song.  If not, please play it at my funeral.  And eat chocolate, drink wine, and dance.  And put the words “She danced.” on my headstone.  And bury me where my daddy is buried.  That’s all I ask.

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4 thoughts on ““I DON’T SPEAK FRENCH!”: AN ASSHOLE AMERICAN TAKES FRANCE BY STORM

  1. Bryan Koeff

    I laughed throughout the entire article Tawni. I pictured myself and know I would have made the same exact mistakes, including the drinking on the plane, the kettle, sleeping in the car and even the peeing issue, depending on how threatening the French men appeared. Thanks for the great story. Haaa ha ha…

    Like

  2. Michelle Duran

    Tawni, this is absolutely how I would be traveling! I went to Australia years ago to find out that what we Americans call a “fanny pack” will make any and all Australians laugh hysterically. I never did find out why THAT was so funny, after all, THEY call it a “bum bag”!

    Like

    • tawniwaters

      Ha! That’s so funny. I so relate. One of the essays I want to write about this trip is all the new terms I learned from my Australian friends here. They speak English, but it sometimes feels like another language!

      Like

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